Film Review: Midnight Special

With 'Midnight Special,' Nichols revives an 'E.T.'-like magic wrapped in an original mood and minimalist style.
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How far would you be willing to go for your loved ones, if fate put you at spiritual and practical odds with conventional wisdom? Jeff Nichols, the distinctive American auteur of outstanding slow-burn dramas such as Take Shelter and Mud, has always displayed a great deal of interest in the kind of transformative devotion that drives the loyal and the protective, and told their stories of impassioned dedication towards battling the perils and embracing the price of their situation. In Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, he led us into the deceptively mundane and increasingly thrilling lives of loyal men committed to protecting their families at all costs. In Mud, he told a fervent coming-of-age tale of friendship and commitment. In the minimalist, beautiful science-fiction-drama-meets-road-movie Midnight Special, his growing filmography’s closest companion to Take Shelter, the writer-director imagines another story of a protective father whose son possesses unknown powers and can only survive depending on the outcome of their dangerous journey in the deep South.

The kid in question is eight-year-old Alton, coolly played by the capable young actor Jaeden Lieberher. The opening of Midnight Special–named after a traditional folk song–informs us through news reports on TV that Alton has been abducted and the federal government is after him and his abductors. With his swimming goggles and big headphones, Alton–whether sitting at the back of his alleged abductors’ car or in a corner of a dark room–never gives us the impression of a kid in danger. But rather, we quickly get the sense that he is the driving force behind this escape, which also involves the grownups he is with: his biological father Roy (the ever-intense Michael Shannon, a staple figure in all of Nichols’ films) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton, affecting.)

Nichols makes sure the story operates on a trail of complete mystery. Our introduction to Alton comes in the opening moments of the film in a cheap motel room in Eldorado, Texas, with all of its windows boarded up from the inside, not allowing any amount of light in. We soon learn that Alton was born in a cult (birthed by Roy’s ex-wife Sarah, played by Kirsten Dunst), and is believed to be some sort of a savior among its members that live in an area they refer to as “The Ranch.” With the intense cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) and the federal government both after Alton, Nichols slowly but surely hints and reveals the details of Alton’s special powers, creating even more questions than answers. The uncertainty of whether Alton is a prophet, a prodigy or, even more fantastically, an alien from outer space powers and pushes the film forward. The plot thickens with the introduction of a rookie NSA agent named Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, subtle and convincing as ever) as the only outsider who seems to respect Alton’s abilities and superpowers–transmitting secret data and flashing light out of his eyes are among them–without looking out for his own personal stakes.

With low-key, human and playfully mysterious cinematic touches that illuminate his film, Nichols not only resurrects that beloved (and desperately missed) Spielbergian feel of family-friendly sci-fi darlings like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (perhaps with a slightly darker edge, nearing M. Night Shyamalan’s early work) but also makes it new and his own. Flashy effects and overtly sentimental turns purposefully take a backseat: This increasingly surprising story, imagined in the intersection of science and spirituality, demands the faith and patience of its audience, and rewards them with a spectacular finale with tastefully grand visuals as Alton’s journey of rescue takes an unexpected, heart-stopping twist. Adam Stone’s sharp nighttime photography perfectly captures a sense of magic and adventure (especially pay special attention to the meteor shower scene) while Chad Keith’s production design and Austin Gorg’s ingenious art direction in the finale leave one lightheaded and in genuine awe.

At heart, Midnight Special is a simple story of unconditional love that must be shielded from outside threats and dangers. But on a grander scale, it’s about instinctive faith in the unknown in the face of doubt. And in that regard, Midnight Special–like Nichols’ best work–approaches a divine experience.

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