Alex McDonald reviews Jeff Nichols’ new sci-fi family thriller, Midnight Special.
There is something different about Midnight Special. Something that makes it distinctly ‘special’. Something that makes it distinctly a Jeff Nichols film. Nichols, whose previous three films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) I have thoroughly enjoyed, is excellent at directing family dramas with a subtle twist. Some might argue that Midnight Special is his first foray into genre films, with inspiration taken from sci-fi classics like E.T., but Nichols does more than just pay homage and adds his own blend of moral ambiguity and raw intensity.
The story begins in a tiny motel room with the windows blacked out, duct tape on the peep hole and a small boy under a sheet reading comics with goggles on. The boy in question is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and he is special for reasons we don’t quite understand yet. To a religious cult, he is their saviour. To the government, he is a weapon. To Roy (Michael Shannon), he is just his son. All three now converge in a slow burning chase that is fraught with tension.
It’s difficult not to be drawn into the mystery that is Midnight Special. From the outset, you are racked with questions that long for understanding because in typical Nichols style, there is very little exposition. Each reveal is methodical and never seems forced which makes for a satisfying experience as things begin to align. Nichols gives a degree of respect to the audience’s intelligence by not spoon feeding them the plot, and allowing it to unravel naturally before our eyes.
And this truly is a treat for the eyes. Without spoiling anything, the use of special effects brings a certain grace to the screen and is a wonderful change of pace from the usual sci-fi, big action bonanzas that we are used to getting these days. Beyond that, Nichols captures a vivid sense of setting, giving each location from interior to exterior a distinct “lived-in” quality that grounds the story even as it veers into the fantastical.
While the film may revolve around ideas of a superhuman nature, it is the humanity of the cast that really makes Midnight Special shine. Shannon, who has appeared in all of Nichols’ previous work, proves once again that he is an incredible on-screen presence. With another actor in his stead, his character could have easily come off as brooding and unlikeable, but Shannon imparts a complicated sense of humanity that endears the audience to his mission. Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst both give strong performances, but Adam Driver is the best of the supporting cast; his mixture of wide-eyed bemusement and curiosity makes him instantly likeable and every scene he is in brings some levity to an otherwise very serious film.
However, the ending may lose some people. While I enjoyed the very cinematic reveal, it does feel somewhat out of place. The scope is something to behold, but it is here that the film loses its definitive Nichols touch, and strays more into the realms of grandiose Spielberg sci-fi. The third act reveal did not sour my experience with the film, but I found the first and second acts are stronger and more engaging because of the slowly unfolding mystery.
Overall, I would highly recommend this film; great direction and powerful performances propel this film forward and keeps the audience invested despite the slow burn of the narrative. If you haven’t seen any of the trailers for this film, don’t watch them; they don’t give very much away, but the less you know going in the more satisfying the mystery will be. Nichols and Shannon may not be the most well-known cinematic pairing, but Midnight Special is just another showcase of their extremely talented relationship and I look forward to whatever comes next.