Title: Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Major Players: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver
Out Of Five: Four
Spoiler-free. The words that became almost synonymous with Star Wars:The Force Awakens bounced back again with the arrival of Bats V Supes, but they’re essential if you’re going to see the latest from director Jeff Nichols. Midnight Special is a film that needs fresh eyes and a fresh mind.
It applies right from the start, as we’re plunged right in to the action. No back story. What soon becomes apparent is that we’re watching a young boy, Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), on the run in the company of his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Not kidnapped by them, as the Amber Alert on TV would have locals believe. The police are on their tail, then the military and the FBI, including one agent from the NSA who seems more knowledgeable than everybody else around him.
Alton, it turns out, has special powers, although exactly what they are takes time to become apparent and, even then, it’s only a partial reveal. He has to wear goggles to protect his eyes from the sun, staying indoors in the dark wherever possible and emerging only at night. His father has snatched him from the religious cult where they both lived and where the boy was worshipped because he’d been spouting what believers were convinced were messages from the Divine and which their leader used in his sermons. What he’d been reciting was highly technical and classified information, so it’s no wonder the FBI are interested in him. But where does he get it from? And how?
There’s a strong sense of destiny hanging over the whole film, with Alton having to reach a certain location by a certain time. Nichols has been quoted on his love for 80s sci-fi and this is definite throwback to Jeff Bridges’ Starman having to get to “Arizona maybe” to rendezvous with his mother ship. There’s distinct flavours of ET and Close Encounters in there as well. As to what that destiny is ….. here I go, coming over all spoiler-free again. Because this is also a film that doesn’t tell you the whole story, leaving you to draw your own conclusions. You can be frustrated by that if you like, but actually it plonks you right in the shoes of the adults surrounding young Alton, which also include his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). They all know his powers defy any logic, but they don’t know why he has them, how he got them and the extent of them. Only he knows that.
But there is one exception among the adults, and that’s NSA agent Savier (Adam Driver) who Alton decides he wants to speak to – and only him. Although he doesn’t display any powers himself, he’s not just intrigued by the boy but seems to understand instinctively what he’s all about and always manages to turn up at crucial moments.
So if the film is such an enigma – and it is – why watch it? Firstly, because it has an interesting theme, one of belief: Alton’s parents believe in him implicitly, even if they don’t understand why he’s the way he is, and they’re not the only ones. It is also remarkably gripping and you side with the father and son right from the outset, even though you’re trying to figure out exactly what’s going on and coping with more than a little tension at the same time. You simply will them to reach their destination and you’re on their side so much that you’re prepared to overlook the occasional incongruity.
Jeff Nichols has directed four films. All have them have starred Michael Shannon and he’s in his next one as well. You can see why. He commands the screen as a man of little words but with an intense love for his son: his feelings for his wife, from whom he’s been separated for some time, go almost as deep. And this time Nichols has lined up some class acts to go with him: Edgerton as the ex-state trooper, a useful guy in a crisis and, even if he’s not the sharpest tool in the box, he still believes in the boy’s powers, even if he hasn’t the slightest idea what they’re for. And there’s Adam Driver’s NSA agent, who’s almost as enigmatic as the film itself.
Midnight Special commands your attention from the word go, with its mysterious quality, beautiful photography and some astonishing action sequences. What you make of it is entirely up to you, but its grip doesn’t let up until the very final shot.
Midnight Special is released in cinemas on Friday, 8 April and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 7 April.