Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp.
Jeff Nichols’ previous two films – Take Shelter and Mud – were impressive and established his reputation as a director to watch. Mud in particular was a southern Gothic thriller that cemented Matthew McConaughey’s reputation as a serious dramatic actor and appeared on many critics’ best of list for 2012. The film also began with a limited art house release before positive word of mouth saw it gain a wider release. Unfortunately Nichols’ latest film will probably not resonate with audiences quite as strongly and may not receive the same level of critical praise.
Midnight Special is a mysterious, enigmatic and elusive blend of action, road movie, high concept sci-fi and chase thriller with supernatural overtones, but Nichols brings an unusual twist and a more eerie quality and humanity to the genre tropes. Midnight Special explores themes of love, the nature of faith, truth, trust, religious extremism, father-son relationships, and the abuse of government power.
The initial set up seems quite simple – two men and a young boy on the run from the authorities. But as the film progresses it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems on the surface. The first part of the film is structured much like a thriller, but the ending seems a little disppointing given the intensity of what preceded it.
When the film opens Roy (played by Michael Shannon, a regular in Nichols’ films) is holed up in a dingy hotel room. The windows are blocked with cardboard. In the bedroom a young boy is reading a comic book. The boy is Alton Meyer (played by Jaeden Lieberher, who we last saw opposite Bill Murray in the underrated St Vincent), who has special uneartly powers, including a strange light that emits from his eyes. Roy has abucted, or is that rescued, Alton from a sinister cult of religious extremists who worshipped him as some sort of Messiah. Roy is accompanied by Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a former childhood friend who is now a state trooper. Roy and Lucas are headed from the badlands of Texas to a specific destination somewhere along the Florida coast known only to Alton.
The trio are on the run from the religious cult who believe that Alton is their salvation, and are also being pursued by the combined forces of the FBI and the US government. Leading the pursuit is nerdy NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, etc) who wants to learn more about the boy’s special powers.
Shannon brings his usual intensity to his performance here as the protective Roy who is prepared to do anything to keep Alton out of the hands of the authorities. Lieberher provides an emotional depth to his performance as Alton, and delivers a strong and mature performance proving that his charismatic turn in St Vincent was no one-off fluke. Kirsten Dunst brings a heartbreaking quality to her performance as Alton’s mother, who is desperate to save her son from the overwhelming forces against them. Sam Shepard, another Nichols regular, brings a touch of gravitas as well as subtle menace to his role as Calvin, the sinister head of the cult.
Nichols was inspired to write the film after he became a father, and he developed Midnight Special as a way of exploring his fears about raising a child in this uncertain modern world. The plot reads like a darker, more adult variation of the classic ET, although without that naive, childlike sense of innocence and wonder with which Spielberg suffused his film. The film manages to subtly bring in references from ET, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Starman, etc, but Nichols suffuses the film with a palpable sense of foreboding. This is arguably Nichols’ most ambitious film to date, with some CGI created special effects for the climax and a couple of big action sequences involving car chases and shoot outs.
Regular collaborator David Wingo’s pulsating electronic music score is suitably ominous and adds to the 80’s sci-fi vibe. Unfortunately, Nichols’ pacing is uneven and the film’s ending raises more questions than it can provide satisfactory answers for. He is more interested in cfreating an unsetling mod than filling in the narrative gaps. The ending itself has attracted a certain amount of controversy, especially from those who believe it is something of a disappointment and too enigmatic for its own good.