Review: Midnight Special
By John Corrado
★★★ (out of 4)
Just four films into his career, all of which have featured Michael Shannon in one form or another, Jeff Nichols has proven himself to be one of our most promising filmmakers, a visual storyteller with a genuine eye for crafting unique character studies.
With his debut feature, Shotgun Stories, he delivered a gritty family crime saga about brothers. Take Shelter was an apocalyptic vision channeled through metaphors of mental illness, and Mud was a gripping boy’s own adventure and coming of age drama that immediately cemented itself as a classic of the genre.
Now comes his latest, Midnight Special, a quiet and evocative chase movie turned allegorical science fiction tale, a mystery that successfully combines elements of his earlier work to position itself as something entirely unique.
The film follows Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), who is on the run with his son Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), an eight year old boy who possess mysterious supernatural powers, and has the ability to speak in tongues and project otherworldly visions through his eyes. Believing him to be a potential weapon, the FBI is trying desperately to track him down, with young agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) hired to decode the boy’s messages and bring him in for further investigation.
The narrative is interesting in that it starts with the characters already on the run, and in many ways drops us right into the middle of their story. We sense there is some fascinating history involving this little boy, and the rural church community that views him as a sort of deity, giving him refuge on their cult-like ranch and taking his message as gospel. There probably could have been an equally engaging film made about the events leading up to the first scene. But this structure allows Midnight Special to feel intimate, focusing closely on the relationship between father and son.
Michael Shannon delivers another in a string of brilliant performances, the camera often lingering on his deeply expressive face. Following his breakout work in St. Vincent, Jaeden Lieberher continues to prove himself as one of our finest young actors, with a poise and ability to express emotion that is far beyond his years. Joel Edgerton does nicely understated work as Roy’s childhood friend, who is on their journey as a sort of bodyguard. Kirsten Dunst rounds out the cast as the boy’s mother.
Jeff Nichols delivers some excellent set pieces throughout, including brilliantly staged slow burn car chases, and moments of violence that are all the more powerful for the ways they hit unexpectedly after very deliberate buildup. Although this is the director’s first studio picture, the film retains the low key intimacy of his indie work, and is all the more affective for it. The camera captures many evocative images throughout, including a haunting shot of school buses cresting a hill early on, and a nighttime sequence partway through that takes on an almost dreamlike quality.
Although Midnight Special doesn’t hit with the same immediacy as Take Shelter, a film that built tension by forcing us to constantly question whether or not its apocalyptic visions were real or imagined, this is a film that lingers in its own way. The film as a whole is heavily inspired by the look and feel of movies from the 1970s and ’80s, with strong undertones of both Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the early works of John Carpenter.
The buildup is somewhat more intriguing than the payoff, and the film doesn’t quite land during an effects-heavy sequence at the end. But this doesn’t detract from the film’s merits. This is sci-fi as religious metaphor, a chase movie that moves forward with an undercurrent of tension and asks us to look beyond what is happening on the sometimes purposefully vague surface, to find the meaning that is lurking underneath. It lingers and stays with you, just like those classics of the 1970s that continue to resonate, and to which Midnight Special ultimately owes a huge debt.