With his fourth feature film, writer/director Jeff Nichols is again tackling big themes on a small-scale. Though Midnight Special is a science fiction film, its main theme is that of family, whether biological or constructed, and the lengths people will go to in order to protect the people they love. Midnight Special is reviewed after the jump.
Roy (Michael Shannon) and his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) have fled from the rural compound where they live with a religious cult. When the group notices that Alton and Roy are missing, they notify the authorities, who put out an Amber Alert (emergency broadcast regarding a missing child) for Alton. The authorities become particularly interested in Alton’s disappearance after hearing stories of his supernatural abilities from the church members. They also discover top-secret government information, which is inexplicitly written in the group’s sermons – which are based on Alton’s “prophecies”.
With the assistance of Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy hopes they can get Alton to an undisclosed location, at a specific time, where something important is set to happen. With the Amber Alert and interest from the government, the task may prove to be an extremely difficult one.
Midnight Special is a disciplined, restrained film. It evokes feelings of Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but on a much smaller, subtler scale. Nichols is also far less willing to spoon-feed the audience, or provide them with detailed backstories about characters – he engages the audience in the story at hand, providing titbits of information, but never bogging the story down with unnecessary filler or complex deconstructions of his characters and their actions. For much of this film, we don’t really know what Lucas’s relationship is to Roy, but this doesn’t actually matter. We understand through their actions and words that they are close and that Lucas would do anything for Roy and Alton, and this is enough.
Nichols has also taken care to write supporting characters that are believable. The government officials, including Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), act as rational people would act – they are not the ridiculous hyped-up and wild-on-power officials that are often depicted in film. The police, and the religious cult members are also depicted with the same sleight of hand – none of them have been over-written and they generally don’t act in a way that would be considered dramatic for their characters. There is something very real about the world he has created here, and these supporting characters are a large part why it feels this way.
There are some wonderful science-fiction elements in this film, which I will not go into as I think these are best discovered fresh and without forewarning. The artistry behind some of the latter developments is quite something; and Nichols has again shown that less is often more when applying these elements to his world and characters.
Watching this I felt a wonderful sense of the importance of family. In Nichols’ films (especially in Mud), family is what you make, not necessarily what you are born into. For much of this film the family is the two men and Alton – all three of them caring for each other in the way that they each know how. Later, the group re-unite Alton with his mother (Kirsten Dunst), and we witness her fierce love for him. Regardless of where Alton is heading and why, we understand that they will love and respect him. Despite the threat of peril, it’s quite a comforting film in many ways.
Performances from the cast are outstanding. Edgerton is interesting here, playing a quiet, stoic character – someone who is caring, but who you wouldn’t want to cross. I thought he was particularly good, and he continues to surprise me with his range. Shannon is excellent as always – he has the sort of face that tells a thousand tales, always so interesting to watch. I would have liked have seen a little more of Dunst, who is excellent as Alton’s mother. There was an incredible internal strength to her character, which Dunst portrayed very well. Jaeden Lieberher shows a lot of restraint and subtlety, particularly for someone his age. I think that Nichols was clever in making his character the centre of the film, but the film did not rest on his performance – in many ways, it is very much an ensemble piece.
Midnight Special is a family drama with a science fiction twist. It’s tense, but comforting; thrilling, but warm-hearted and caring. I very much enjoyed the ride. The film is out in limited release in Australia, and I urge you seek the film out if you can.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer(s): Jeff Nichols
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver
Runtime: 112 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: April 21, 2016