Review: ‘Midnight Special’ is a Sci-Fi Thriller Steeped in Rich and Intriguing Mystery

By March 16, 2016
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The best genre films are the ones that use fantastical stories to give simple messages. In Midnight Special, a father transports his supernaturally gifted son across country, on the run from religious radicals and government agents, to try and get him to the place he needs to be. He does not know what awaits them at their destination, or what will happen to his son when he gets there, but he goes for one simple reason: his son asked him to.

With his latest film, writer and director Jeff Nichols has been given a budgetary freedom that is becoming increasingly rare nowadays for films that don’t have any franchise possibilities, but instead of taking that freedom and losing the kind of restraint he demonstrated so beautifully in both Mud and Take Shelter, he has delivered a sci-fi thriller mystery for the ages. Born out of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter inspirations, Midnight Special has taken its familiar elements and transformed and combined them into something wholly belonging to Nichols, and if there’s one thing you can take away from Midnight Special, it’s Nichols’ proven place as one of the greatest American filmmakers of his generation.

You need not look any further for evidence of that either, than by the casts he manages to assemble in each of his projects. With frequent collaborator Michael Shannon returning as the film’s lead, Roy Tomlin as well, Nichols allows his actors to shine and drive his film despite its sometimes massive scope and breathtaking visual effects. He does this by showcasing everything in the film from their perspective, and his decision to always keep you close to his actors, trusting the entirety of his film’s success in their abilities, pays off in spades.

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Once again, the writer and director proves to understand the immense talent and power Shannon possesses onscreen like few other filmmakers have, and after giving two of his career best performances in both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Shannon has clocked in yet another restrained and deeply emotional performance here. Roy is a man of few words, whether he’s thanking you for your help or dismissing you, but Shannon provides each word with enough power that there need not be anything else said. These two get each other – that much is clear, and through all of their past collaborations, they have become one of the most talented and complimentary actor and director duos in cinema history, on par with DeNiro and Scorsese, Bogart and Huston, and more.

After bringing in Shannon, Nichols has built a solid cast around him with Jaeden Lieberher giving the best performance of his career so far as Alton, the boy with strange powers, who seems just as clueless about what’s going on as we are. Kirsten Dunst gives a commendable performance as Sarah as well, Alton’s birth mother who comes back into the story at a crucial point, which I’ll leave mysterious for now. Other small players include Sam Shepard briefly in the beginning, and Adam Driver who serves an integral role in the story and manages to bring a humor and investigative aspect to the story without it ever feeling tonally jarring from the mostly intense, riveting film.

The real standout here though is Joel Egerton as Lucas, an efficient and morally confident man helping Roy and Alton to reach their destination. The film doesn’t reveal Lucas’ relation to Roy or any of the other characters until about halfway through the film as well, letting his actions inform the character and his relationship with the others before telling us who he is, or why he’s there in the first place. He gives the film a constant sense of comfort, and in one particularly tense scene near the beginning, Edgerton is able to subtly translate a wide, varying range of emotions, with very little time to do so. His Lucas is quiet and confident, and his character is just as enthralling as the film’s most burning questions.

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From beginning to end, Nichols is the star of Midnight Special though and there is this inimitable feeling you get when you’re watching one of his films that you are in the hands of a cinematic master, and no matter where he takes you and what unexpected directions he takes, there is the assurance that the journey throughout will feel well worth it by the end. In Midnight Special, he is perhaps never more confident, and never more precise. Though it might not hit quite the same subtle, thematic flourishes that Mud or Take Shelter did, and sometimes its pace slows down a bit too much, but this is without a doubt, his most expertly crafted and staged film yet.

Nichols himself has even compared it to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the past, and while the story itself and its characters don’t share all that much resemblance to the classic Spielberg film, what Midnight Special is able to capture that its predecessor also did, is the kind of awe that few other sci-fi films can take credit for. If this is his version of Close Encounters, I can only imagine what his iterations of Spielberg’s other films would be like.

The film’s score by David Wingo works beautifully with the cinematography by Adam Stone, giving the film a quiet intensity and fire throughout every scene that not only elevates some of the film’s quieter moments and pauses, but helps to give the film a never-ending tension and drive. When passing the Warner Bros. lot after seeing the film as well, I saw nothing but posters for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and while I have yet to see the superhero film, there was a part of me that wished they had been promotions for Midnight Special.

These are the kinds of films I want to see more of, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a decade, there is a new generation of filmmakers entering the industry, talking about how inspired they were by Jeff Nichols’ work. With a gorgeous, signature aesthetic, and emotionally resonant story as well, Midnight Special is like an ignited stick of dynamite, slowly building in heat and size until it finally reaches the end of its fuse. Just make sure to keep your eyes open as long as you can, because you won’t want to miss the explosion that follows.

Midnight Special will hit theatres on March 18th.

Make sure to keep checking back for more updates — right here on GeekNation.

Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable