Midnight Special (2016) / Thriller-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence and action
Running Time: 112 min.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard
Small role: Nancy Grace
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Review published April 9, 2016
Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) may not yet be considered one of the great directors of our era, but he should be considered one of our greatest storytellers. It's not really what he says in his films that make them so effective for viewers who enjoy slow but enrapturing tales that are carefully and deliberately developed over the course of a movie, with subtle character reveals that change the perspective on how we view them as each new facet is explored. As such, this is one of those movies in which I would encourage you to watch when knowing as little as possible, not because it is full of big secrets and crazy reveals, but because the main enjoyment of it is in watching a master teller of stories spin a yarn in his own way, and in his own time.
For those more adventurous in finding out what the movie is about before you see it, I'll still keep things free of major spoilers, even though some of what I will discuss isn't revealed until late in the film, including that it's a science fiction premise. Nichols keeps cards quite close to the chest until they're ready to be played.
Nichols' Midnight Special is an intriguing straight-faced science fiction-thriller which immediately shows us two armed and anxious men who've seemingly abducted an eight-year-old boy for reasons that are increasingly made clear as we course through the story. One of the men is Roy Tomlin (Shannon, The Night Before), who has a strong bond to the odd duck of a boy, Alton Meyer (Lieberher, Aloha), and the other man is more along for the ride, Roy's friend Lucas (Edgerton, Jane Got a Gun). The men have taken Alton from the compound of an isolationist religious cult in the West Texas run by Calvin Meyer (Shepard, Cold in July), who are actively seeking the return of this boy who is seen within the cult as a messianic prophet whose seemingly random utterances have formed the basis of their beliefs, including the specific time and place in which something major is about to occur that will affect them all. Also hot on the trail of the men are members of law enforcement, including a brilliant analyst working for the NSA, Paul Sevier (Driver, The Force Awakens), who is desperately seeking knowledge on how and why the young boy has been spouting top-secret information that no one outside of their organization should possibly know, becoming a risk to national security if left unchecked.
If you've seen the trailers and advertisements for Midnight Special, you'll already be clued in on the extended nature of the boy's abilities before they occur in the film, as we see him wear swim goggles that don't always manage to minimize the blinding light that Alton sometimes beams from his eye sockets at various points. The tension of what amounts to a chase film comes through not only in their continuing escape from authorities, as well as members of the cult, but also in having to make the crucial deadline that Alton has been foretelling, and to do it before Alton, whose health appears to be fading of late, expires from whatever malady has been afflicting him.
Those who've enjoyed films of the 1980s will recognize the sources that Nichols pulls from for Midnight Special. Elements of the main plot will certainly remind many viewers immediately of Steven Spielberg's E.T., a tinge of the chase elements of Sugarland Express, along with a more obvious Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Those a little more in the know on Eighties sci-fi/thrillers will also see deeper shades of John Carpenter's Starman are equally drawn from for the basic plot. Perhaps even a bit of Firestarter as well (when asked about similarities, Nichols claims he hadn't seen that one all the way through), all from the latter half of the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, which might also explain the emphasis on older vehicles and televisions, even though this film is set in the modern day.
Unlike those films, which contain a healthy helping of comic relief, Nichols has decided not to deliberate go for crowd-pleasing elements like exciting chase sequences or moments of obvious comic relief, even though the film has incidental scenes that touch upon them. Nichols is even drawing upon themes that he himself explored in his Take Shelter, which was about a man who saw visions, though Nichols left the answer as to whether that character, played by Michael Shannon, was truly a prophet or merely suffering from a degenerative mental disease. Take Shelter is a bit more straightforward in its reveals on the nature of its main character, but ultimately answers its main question with larger questions we all ask.
Nichols' has put together a fine collection of actors to sell the film, including his muse, Michael Shannon, in one of the lead roles. Lieberher does very well in a tricky role as the odd young child who is struggling between feelings in the present and his knowledge of what's coming, allowing is to sympathize with his confusion but also have trust that, somehow, there really is a purpose to his strange powers that will guide him toward a proper conclusion that will reveal what they're about, or, at least, enough to want to know where things will lead. While seemingly a superfluous character from outside appearances, Edgerton's excellent take as Lucas is especially important because he's an outsider, like us, which grounds the story with a healthy amount of deliberate skepticism, and also allows for more expository information to be said aloud for our benefit. Adam Driver, as the curious NSA analyst, gives us an empathetic face to the pursuers of Alton, in a role that would have typically been cast as a sort of heavy, that suggest that his search for secrets is really a search for knowledge, and a better understanding of ourselves in the quest for information.
Midnight Special is a slow-burn thriller with a plotline that will have people expecting mass appeal elements, but Nichols chooses to stay away as much as he can away from a conventional treatment to his story, which may challenge less patient viewers. It's a dark film most of the time, shot mostly at night or in shadows with natural light, and doesn't inject action beats at the usual intervals, making this feel very much like Hollywood plot done entirely with an indie sensibility. For Nichols' first studio film, he's testing the waters, as it feels both big and small at the same time, which is also what makes it unique for a genre filmmaking excursion. Shot with a higher budget than his first three films combined, but still low by today's studio film standards, the special effects are effective but sparingly used, letting most of what's going on play out in your imagination. Nichols, as he is wont to do, also doesn't care to answer every question the film raises, which also may put off some viewers expecting that the ending will make sense about all of it, while other viewers may find that it reveals more than what is necessary.
Regardless of quibbles, it's a film more about the journey, perhaps about life's ultimately journey if you choose that metaphor, than it is about providing pat answers, and that, along with Nichols' ability to draw you in, makes the film, like the boy, uncanny but truly special.
©2016 Vince Leo