Jeff Nichols may be this generation’s greatest storyteller, and Midnight Special is his most deceptively straightforward work to date. This film is a subtle, yet deeply moving work of science fiction movie magic that will no doubt be celebrated and studied for many years to come. It also features top-notch performers from Nichols’ regulars, as well as several Hollywood notables, each of whom bring something special to project.
Being that this film is best experienced by knowing as little as possible going in, I’ll keep details to a minimum in this review. When the film begins, Roy (Michael Shannon) is a wanted man. He is suspected of kidnapping his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), which is true only to an extent. Roy and Alton, along with Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Egerton), are on the run from the US government, as well as a group of religious extremists, because Alton is believed to possess special powers. What those powers are and ˙ow they may be used for is the basis for a growing fear of the unknown. Some see Alton as a savior, while others believe he may be a weapon. Roy sees Alton as his flesh and blood, not to mention his only child, and as such he only wants to keep his son safe.
As the story unfolds both Roy and Lucas begin to understand what Alton is capable of, and that knowledge leads them to question everything they know about life. Alton questions life as well, and he wonders if he is really where he is meant to be. The truth is something far greater than you could possibly imagine, and I certainly am not going to be the one who spoils that reveal. Just know that, for once, it’s perfectly acceptable to question everything. In fact, Nichols wants you to do just that, and he proves as much by purposely trimming nearly every sequence to make things as opaque as possible without derailing the narrative altogether.
As with all of Nichols’ films, Midnight Special is essentially a story about a man who finds himself dealing with an impossible situation in the sparsely populated areas of the American South. More often than not that man is played to perfection by Michael Shannon, and that is again the case with his picture. Roy’s only goals in life are to keep his son safe and away from anyone who may wish to cause him harm, but given his Alton’s undeniable gifts those goals are incredibly hard to meet. Everyone wants a part of Alton even though no one really understands him, and Roy understands how quickly people can go from not knowing something to believing that thing to be evil or in way dangerous. Alton is not dangerous, and he’s certainly not evil. He’s just a boy who is as lost in the world as anyone else, and his father treats him as any parent would.
The only path to understanding, aside from reading between the lines of everything you see, is through Adam Driver’s turn as a government employee with an overly inquisitive mind. Where most people believe Alton to be a threat from the start, Driver’s character is more interested in the how and why of his existence. He wants to understand Alton’s presence on Earth, as well as the greater implications of such an event happening in his own lifetime, and his search for answers mirrors that of the viewer’s experience watching the film. You’re yearning to know more from the opening scene, but Nichols makes it a point to keep you at arm’s length from the truth for as long as possible. When reveals do occur, they come in waves, with each new piece of information answering almost as many questions as it inspires.
Kirsten Dunst delivers one of the best performances of her career as Alton’s mother and Roy’s former lover. Her appearance in the film comes later than almost any other recognizable talent, but as soon as she arrives she makes her presence is known with a compelling turn that, like the performances of her co-stars, never pulls too much attention away from the plot. I don’t know if Nichols plans on making her a regular in his work, but he should.
Midnight Special has far more effects than Nichols’ diehard fans are used to seeing, but their inclusion in the story is rather minimal. You could strip away essentially all CGI and tell the exact same story without losing much, if any, heart. Nichols and his team understand that visual effects should help the story, not drive it, and as such they never rely on the more awe-inspiring moments to carry the film. The effects are a tool, just like dialogue and lighting, and when used just right as they are here their impact on the viewer can be great.
Comparisons to classic science fiction filmmakers like Spielberg or Scott are sure to abound as more and more people experience Midnight Special, but there is no denying this movie is the original product of a great storyteller in his prime. Nichols has reaching bigger and bigger crowds ever since Shotgun Stories became a festival favorite, and with this title he feels poised to become someone who even your parents know by name. It doesn’t hurt that his relationship with Michael Shannon is like that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, or Scorsese and DiCaprio, but their creative synergy is only one of many elements that make this film something you simply have to see. From beginning to end, top billed to background extras, everything about this movie works. Midnight Special is a one of kind movie event.