Midnight Special, the latest offering from director Jeff Nichols, has the outward appearance of some much-needed relief from the ongoing crop of reboots, remakes and sequels-an original science fiction road drama with its influences highly visible on its sleeve. Right out of the gate, this eerie film evokes some nostalgia evocative of early Steven Spielberg works as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter entries as Starman, with a premise that fits in alongside said movies quite well.
In Midnight Special, we follow the story of Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a young boy who has been removed from the clutches of a religious cult by his father Roy (Michael Shannon), a man who, along with his son, believe that on a specified date at a specified location, something remarkable, possibly supernatural will occur. Indeed, evidence certainly exists to support this, as Alton possesses inexplicable powers including beams of light that periodically erupt from his eyes and the ability to mentally intercept radio transmissions, among other paranormal skills. Assisted by Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the trio travel across the country, seeking refuge with various former cult members, all the while being pursued by both representatives from the cult and the FBI, the latter of which is led by communications expert Paul Seiver (Adam Driver). To sum it up briefly, the chase is on.
Chemistry doesn’t even begin to describe the connective tissue between the cast members, emphasized by top-notch performances from Edgerton, Driver and even Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother Sarah. Driver, most notably, continues to showcase his burgeoning talent with another excellent role so soon after his turn as the villainous Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with a part highly reminiscent of Peter Coyote’s sympathetic character, “Keys” from the comparable E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
However, it’s Michael Shannon who delivers, without question, the film’s standout performance. As Alton’s father Roy, he exhibits a determination, a weathered persona and genuine affection for his son, all of which manifest themselves throughout Midnight Special at key moments that drive the film forward. Thanks to the careful achievement of this balancing act, what we have is one of Shannon’s finest roles and a career-defining portrayal. Furthermore, Nichols‘ direction continues to solidify his status as a highly-promising director, not only in his re-teaming with Shannon following their previously-released Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud but in the way he’s able to capture his characters in a very natural, very vulnerable state. Without overly relying on special effects, he’s able to craft a unique science fiction film that feels as much at home with E.T. as similarly-themed movies like 1995’s Powder, in addition to Nichols’ earlier independent efforts.
And yet, the film is still not without its faults. The mood present throughout Midnight Special is considerably dark, which does work at certain points but does create a dreary atmosphere that does align better with the filmography of Carpenter than that of Spielberg at times. Truly, anyone who likes movies where the cast looks sullen from start to finish will feel right at home watching this one. An unnerving score courtesy of David Wingo accentuates the film as well. Furthermore, one is likely to have a variety of questions when the credits role, which does mostly work with regards to Midnight Special as a whole but is still likely to leave many viewers somewhat frustrated.
Midnight Special is currently in limited release and will likely see a blu-ray release before long. It’s absolutely worth a viewing, if for no other reason than to see the outstanding cast take the script to a level beyond that of conventional by-the-book acting. Despite its dull moments, I still found plenty to enjoy about Midnight Special, and await the next release from Jeff Nichols.