A superbly acted, wonderfully directed, all-round excellent sci-fi film.
As Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, Midnight Special has pretty much cemented the American director as one of the best new filmmakers to break through in recent years – just in case Mud wasn’t enough. Intriguing and tense, moving, gripping, and beautifully crafted from start to finish, the sci-fi film is possessed of that timeless sense of wonder (think any Spielberg film with kids in it) which stays with you long after the credits have finished rolling.
The film follows Roy and Lucas (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton, respectively), as they steal away with Roy’s son, Alton, played by Jaeden Lieberher, a boy possessed of mysterious supernatural powers. Chased by a cult convinced that Alton is their saviour, and by the U.S. government, particularly NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), the two men have to get Alton to a particular set of coordinates by a certain date. With this three-party chase taking place, Roy, Lucas, and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), have to take care of the frail child, whose extraordinary power takes its toll on his health.
Midnight Special starts more or less as it means to go on, setting up expectation, only to sidestep around them and reveal something else. The mystery of what exactly Alton is, of who the cult are, of how and why things happen, are all placed in front of you to create engagement, to make you question, to keep you switched on for the entirety of the film. But where a lesser director would proceed to wrap everything up in a neat conclusion, Nichols has the bravery to leave much of the questions raised unanswered, and even those answers that are given only give way to new questions. Nichols’ film isn’t supposed to be simple (though it can, for the most part, be approached simply if you like). It’s meant to stay with you, to make you wonder, to make you question and to make you work for the meaning weaved through the scenes rather than just giving it to you on a plate.
Everything about the film is meticulously crafted. The acting is stellar from all involved. Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon’s portrayal of parenthood, of the desire to do anything for your child, is heartbreaking, and forms the emotional core of the film. Joel Edgerton gives a solid performance as well, offering the audience a way in to an otherwise nebulous story, and ranging from harsh to soft with a wonderfully light touch. Adam Driver is great – a stumbling, loveable government agent providing comic relief and being one of the most enjoyable performances in the film. The show is stolen, though, by Jaeden Lieberher. The child actor (previously in St. Vincent), is phenomenal, acting with a force of presence that many more experienced actors would struggle to deliver, without ever losing the innocence of childhood throughout the film. There is no way for Midnight Special to be as good as it is without Lieberher, and he steps up perfectly.
In terms of direction, Midnight Special is pretty flawless (see above comment about Jeff Nichols being really very good). Every scene is put together with painstaking care, every inch of the film is deliberate, contributing to Nichols’ vision, expressed with fantastic beauty. The film’s climax, the big reveal at the end, is handled superbly, and in the hands of another it could easily have ruined the whole film. A critical scene in the middle of the film, one which reveals a significant plot-point, is told entirely through visual storytelling, and is just magnificent.
Subtlety, then, is the name of the game with Midnight Special, magnificent subtlety. It requires nothing of you to watch it and enjoy it, there’s chases, and action, and a kid that blasts frickin’ laser-beams out of his eyes. But if you do pay it attention, which every second of the film just begs for you to do, Midnight Special is elevated onto the highest level of storytelling. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema, and though it’s early days yet, is definitely a contender for one of the best films of the year.
Midnight Special (2016), directed by Jeff Nichols, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One, certificate 12A.