PG-13, 112 mins.
2016, PG-13, 112 mins.
Michael Shannon as Roy / Joel Edgerton as Lucas / Jaeden Lieberher as Alton / Kirsten Dunst as Sarah / Adam Driver as Agent Sevier / Sam Shepard as Calvin Meyer / Sean Bridgers as Fredrick
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols' MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a small scale, low key, and understated supernatural/sci-fi thriller that’s nevertheless hypnotizing and enthralling despite its modest look and feel.
Unlike so many
other modern genre examples, this film places less emphasis of garishly
distracting visual effects and numbing action spectacle and instead hones
in on the human drama that is cemented in its own fantastical storyline.
That overall approach philosophy has typified the Arkansas born
Nichols throughout his last two superlative efforts, 2011's TAKE
SHELTER and 2012’s MUD, both of
which appeared on my lists for the best films of their respective years.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL once again reiterates and confirms him as one of
the most thoughtful and confident voices in contemporary cinema for the
manner that he brings an authentically grounded atmosphere and touchingly
relatable characters to his work; this new film shows him in
complete command of his directorial prowess.
fourth film represents his first major mainstream studio backed venture
and his first foray into the science fiction genre, but he somehow manages
to make MIDNIGHT SPECIAL feel insularly modest and intimate, but yet
wholeheartedly gripping. He
achieves this primarily by poking around well establish troupes and
conventions of the sci-fi genre while never really feeling slavishly
faithful or reliant on them. That,
and MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is perhaps not really a literal science fiction
effort, per se, as it’s more of a multiple genre mishmash: it’s a
tightly wound road flick and chase thriller, a conspiracy drama, a
religious parable, and a serenely moving drama of the limitless lengths a
father will go to in order to ensure the survival of his son.
The film never wastes time with exposition (it thrusts viewers
directly into the thick of things with a stark and satisfying immediacy),
but it never feels forced or rushed.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL demands patience in viewers and asks them to
partake in a journey of discovery of what’s to come, and Nichols is
fiendishly clever at never tipping off where his narrative is heading.
film concerns Alton Tomlin (a remarkably poised for his age Jaeden
Lieberher), a seemingly ordinary looking and sweet tempered 8-year-old boy
that enjoys reading comic books and has a peculiar taste for wearing blue
swimming goggles. He was
raised on a very remote Texas farm/religious cult that is overseen by a
preacher named Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard)…who believes that Anton is no
mere mortal lad. He believes
that he is a super powerful messenger from Heaven that he needs for the
purposes of keeping his devoted flock together.
Calvin adopted the boy, which left his biological mother Sarah
(Kirsten Dunst) crestfallen and prompted her to leave the compound. Alton’s father, Roy (frequent Nichols collaborator Michael
Shannon), will have none of this and decides to abduct the child and flee
from the compound forever, relying on some much needed help from his
accomplice (Joel Edgerton). Amber
alerts are declared and local law enforcement and Calvin’s own men are
hot on the trail of Alton, hoping to return him safely.
but surely, details are revealed about Alton’s very unique gifts and
abilities. For some reason,
he can't be exposed to sunlight at all, can spontaneously shoot vast
blue-hued energy beams from his eyes, and is able to somehow – in a
bravura and remarkably tense moment – telekinetically pull a satellite
from Earth’s orbit down to the ground in a hellish fireball.
This is no mere boy. All
of this prompts Roy to seek out Alton’s mother, but it becomes abundantly clear
that timing is not on their side and the Feds eventually catch up with all
of them. One of the agents, a
consultant for the NSA (Adam Driver), has been assigned to assess whether
or not Alton’s godlike powers are a threat to national security, but
when Alton discovers where his abilities come from - and that he must be a
specific location at a specific time for all to be revealed - it changes
everything for everybody.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL owes a considerable amount to films like Steven
Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and E.T.
– THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and John Carpenter’s underrated STARMAN.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL certainly appropriates the ethereal magic of
Spielberg of yesteryear while also grounding it in the stylistic
accoutrements of classic Carpenter thrillers.
Nichols’ film, though, is more evocatively sparse and
intriguingly economically. His
approach to handling the ultimate conundrum of Alton’s existence poses
many questions, provides some answers, and then in the process elicits
many new questions afterwards and always keeps viewers at a tantalizing
arms length and guessing. Who
is this kid? Where did he come from?
Is he human…an alien…an angel…or a combination of the three?
Why does he break out into tongues?
How is he able to shoot projectile laser beams from his eyes?
And what will happen to him and the planet in general when he
arrives at that prophesized location?
It’s a testament to Nichols’ supreme narrative mastery of
evoking in audience members a need take a journey in this film alongside
its multiple characters to discover the answers that they too so
is also not interested at all in making this science fiction tale of the
ostentatiously splashy, cookie cutter variety.
That’s not to say that his films, visually at least, don’t have
a wonderfully beautiful texture of their own, but Nichols is really
aspiring to subvert our commonly held expectations of science fiction
films, especially contemporary ones that are high of epically mindless CG
mayhem. Yes, Nichols does
employ visual effects in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (as much as he can with a lean
and limited $15 million budget), but they more subtly exist within the
dramatic fabric of his story and never become obtrusively showy for the
sake of existing. Like the
best examples of classic sci-fi, Nichols uses the genre as a tentpole to
explore relevant and topical themes that resonant with viewers – How far
would you go to protect your child that’s in clear danger?
Would you be willing to let you offspring go if that meant ensuring
his survival? And what of
faith? There’s the unmistakable notion presented in MIDNIGHT
SPECIAL that religious spiritualism is cemented in the philosophy of
believing in unseen entities that ultimately makes us insignificant beings
in the larger framework of God’s plan for everyone.
Nichols’ builds his film towards a climax that plateaus toward some
fascinating emotional and dramatic payoffs that speaks not only to Roy’s
need to make sacrifices for his boy, but also towards the idea that, yes,
there’s something just...unexplainable and beyond our
comprehension out there.
partnership of Shannon and Nichols might be our modern answer to the
golden age of the De Niro/Scorcese tandem of old.
Shannon might be out most engagingly intense actors working today,
one who’s often so mesmerizing at playing hostile antagonists with a
creepy, Svengali-like charisma and menace.
It’s kind of bold and wonderful to see Shannon play against type
here as a well meaning, but ferociously determined protector instead of
inhabiting yet another unhinged weirdo in a film.
Nichols always manages to bring out the finest in Shannon, making
their partnership so mutually beneficial and rewarding.
The supporting cast is strong as well, like the always-dependable
Edgerton with his under-the-radar manner of becoming one with his roles with
minimal fuss. Dunst perhaps has the toughest acting challenge in the film playing
a mother dealing with the crippling pain of having to lose her son not
once, but twice. Young
Lieberher manages to display a childlike naiveté while embodying a
character that seems wise and mature beyond his limited years.
And Adam Driver continues to evoke an eccentric, Jeff
Goldblum-esque oddness to all of
his characters that makes him so unforgettably watchable.
His NSA agent is never fully what he appears to be, which Driver
quietly and craftily conveys in his tricky performance.
I’m not sure that there is a finer director working today than Nichols. At just 37, he now has a trio of superlative films under his belt that would be the envy of industry veterans twice his age and career stature. I think he’s often overlooked in the conversation because his films – MIDNIGHT SPECIAL included – are so eloquently spare, but somehow manage to speak untold volumes about the frailty of the human condition. It’s so bloody uncommon for a science fiction film to be so hush and quietly rendered that explores such far-reaching ideas regarding the concepts of God and faith, parental responsibly, the impenetrable bond between fathers and sons, and what exists beyond our normal plane of existence. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is an unqualified embarrassment of ambitious thematic riches, told with Nichols’ characteristic reserved aesthetic touches that allow for the film’s beguiling and contemplative mysterious to be explored and savored.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.