Published on April 27th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Jeff Nichols has proven himself to be a talent to watch with excellent films like Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories; Midnight Special continues this trend.
It’s a clever filmmaker that can borrow from a few different genres and tropes, but manage to avoid projecting déjà vu unto the audience, seemingly making those ideas their own. Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special shines the everlovin’ light on several influences and genres as it unfolds. It’s science fiction, a road thriller, a proto-superhero flick, a movie about cults, and about the importance of family, among other things. It isn’t quite pastiche like Tarantino or The Guest, but it rings of properties like The X-Files, Firestarter, Close Encounters, E.T., Under the Skin, The Fugitive, and Starman. Yet, it has its own voice. I think it’s mostly in the execution of these ideas; you can feel Nichols in the details, the lean set up of the story and how it plays out.
The movie jumps right into the action, smartly late in the story, as Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on the lamb with Roy’s son, a young boy named Alton. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s not a spoiler to tell you that Alton is different. The trio is pursued by a dangerous cult, led by Sam Shepard, and the NSA/FBI/GOVERNMENT, in the form of Adam Driver.
Because we’ve seen movies like this before, we can kind of gather what’s happening, without having to be pandered to with exposition and explanations right out of the gate. Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) assumes his audience is somewhat genre literate, familiar with some of these tropes, and thus, he can focus on letting your imagination fill in the holes while he dives into the action. And as the action gets underway, that lack of concrete information brilliantly raises story questions that hook the viewer; like, who are these people and why are they running? How did Lucas get wrapped up with Roy and Alton? Why is Alton so important? Where are they going?
Then, when the movie needs to slow down and let you take a breath, it does so, answering those story questions and giving you a bit more of the background of some of these characters and their predicament. Without overdoing it or hitting you about the face and neck with exposition, Nichols gives you people to care about, before they hurtle headlong towards the climax.
The other thing that makes Midnight Special work so well is the acting. I mean, how can you go wrong with Michael Shannon’s patented grim glowering? Driver and Edgerton are really believable, as is the young Jaeden Lieberher as Alton. Notable is Kirsten Dunst, who between this and Fargo, seems to be having some sort of late career blossoming; she is excellent as Alton’s mother. The acting in the film does some of the heavy lifting with the minimal characterizations — we don’t need them to sit down and tell us where they’ve been, because it’s written all over their faces.
I’m not sure the degree to which someone that isn’t into science fiction will buy in, but I found that Midnight Special brought me through a range of emotions and atmospheres. It’s sinister, glorious, sad, paranoid, tense, touching, chilling, and even epic in some moments. Again, it doesn’t pander and try to answer all your questions; its subtle and minimal storytelling lets you fill in the subtext with your knowledge of previous incarnations of some of these ideas. Yet, while it doesn’t want to explain everything, it isn’t confusing or hard to follow in the slightest.
This is my kind of movie, so maybe curb your expectations slightly, but as was the case with The Guest and Under the Skin when they came out, so far, Midnight Special is one of my favourites movies of the year.