Jeff Nichols is in many ways like his filmmaking peer Edgar Wright (whose Scott Pilgrim and Cornetto Trilogy I’ve already reviewed): he’s only made four films, none of which have had particularly big budgets, and in that time he has formed a completely idiosyncratic style. That’s where the similarities stop. Nichols makes deceptively simple films that cover the spectrum of the human experience, from first love to parenthood to letting go, in a way that never topples into pure sentimentality nor pure intellectualism, but instead allows his deep themes to seep into your consciousness, and films like Midnight Special are the end result.Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) is on the run across the American South with his eight-year-old son Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy gifted with many remarkable psychic abilities that often shine through in episodic fits, during which walls may collapse, bright lights emit from his eyes, and he’d cry out apparently random series’ of numbers. His abilities resulted in his adoptive father Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) building a cult, known as the Ranch, around him, and his kidnapping from the Ranch piqued the interest of the FBI and NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), who has found that Alton’s numbers correlate with top secret information. Now not only outrunning the Ranch but the government as well, Roy, with the help of his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), must get Alton to a specific location within four days, for a reason of possibly cosmic importance…
I just recently watched Jeff Nichols’ Mark-Twain-inspired coming-of-age drama Mud, and the immense talent showcased in that film has really come to fruition in Midnight Special. Nichols has an eye for beautiful, loose compositions that often play longer than the contemporary style; but I felt in Mud that he used too much cutting, possibly for fear of boring the audience or lack of confidence in the strength of his shots. In Midnight Special, however, with the assistance of cinematographer Adam Stone and editor Julie Monroe, Nichols puts much more information in each shot and plays them out much longer, creating a pace that some may find slow but I found to be beautifully pensive, a rare trait to give a film labelled a sci-fi thriller.
The acting is very strong all around, though I felt Edgerton and Dunst were more competent than memorable. Driver, known to most people as Kylo Ren from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is clearly much more at home here than on the Starkiller, striking a perfect balance between the dedicated seriousness of a scientist and the passionate heart of a kid looking through his telescope on a starry night. However, Lieberher and Shannon gave the best performances of the entire cast. Lieberher’s occasional empty seriousness that child actors are prone to is completely overshadowed by his earnestness and maturity; Shannon conveys all the strength, conviction and tenderness of a loving father almost entirely through his piercing eyes, and one feels genuine connection between the two in the film’s most quiet moments.
Though the film does feature a cult, I personally don’t feel it is a film about religion. Obviously, any group of people that employ violent means in following their beliefs should never be condoned, but the film never suggests that those beliefs are wrong or that they are ignorant for believing them. I’d argue that Midnight Special, like Star Wars before it, is a decidedly theistic film that never advertises itself as so; but unlike Star Wars, where the Force was employed as a story device, Alton’s powers are the story, and I admire Nichols’ courage in trusting the audience to follow an almost entirely conceptual film in which the plot takes the passenger seat.
This film will not please everyone, as the thriller fan may find it unrepentantly slow and the sci-fi fan may be confused by the film’s ending. But, if you leave your genre expectations at the door, Midnight Special, with Nichols’ steady direction and minimal writing, Stone’s casually breathtaking imagery, and the beautifully ambient score by David Wingo, will bypass both your heart and your brain and connect with a higher level of your consciousness, one not governed by logic, but pure understanding.
The tagline for this film is “He’s Not Like Us”. Midnight Special will make you wonder if that’s really so.
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