A film review by Craig J. Koban June 24, 2016

RANK:  #11


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. 

Nichols’ 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. 



The 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. 

Slowly, 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. 

Superficially, 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 desperately want.  

Nichols 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. 

The 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.  


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