As evidenced by his previous two films, Take Shelter and Mud, Jeff Nichols is a director who likes to find small stories in the biggest of contexts. Take Shelter threatened doomsday but focused on one man’s conflicts with his community, while Mud told the tale of the economic decline of the American South through the eyes of a childhood friendship. His latest piece, Midnight Special, pulls off the same trick with even more aplomb, with superpowers, satellite crashes, and the conflicting interests of the NSA and a cult all taking a back seat to a father’s concern for his son.
By the film’s end, plenty of mysteries and revelations have come and gone and special effects spectacles have made for thrilling set-pieces, but Nichols never loses sight of Midnight Special’s core relationship. With the script written by Nichols in response to the sheer terror of becoming a parent himself, the relationship between father Roy (Michael Shannon) and son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is always tenderly real, even though Alton is imbued with powers of unknown origins. He can cause tremors, shoots lights from his eyes, and is connected to every radio on earth, which of course attracts plenty of unwanted attention from both the government and those seeking a messiah.
It’s this attention that causes Roy to go on the run with Alton, travelling only by night without ever using the car’s headlights, making for some slickly unnerving driving scenes early in the film. Roy and Alton are chaperoned by Lucas (Joel Edgerton), proficient with firearms and other military equipment. Lucas’ exact motivations and background are kept vague, just one of many examples of Nichols’ brilliant grasp of exactly how much exposition his audience needs. Mood is valued over plot and whilst that means some of the side-stories feel underdeveloped, it also ensures that even the more outlandish moments are fully believable.
There have been comparisons made between Midnight Special and the family-friendly works of 70s/80s Spielberg, not something to be taken lightly, but overall earned. It nails not only the feeling of childlike wonder so powerful in Close Encounters and ET, but also achieves the latter film’s trick of making the government just as ‘other’ as Alton’s supernatural abilities. From an early shot at night that makes an NSA convoy look like a series of low-flying UFOs, it is made clear that The Man is not to be trusted. Their intentions may be less obviously sinister than the Ranch – the cult led by the incredibly shady Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) – but it’s obvious that their plans for Alton don’t involve a particularly hopeful future.
Outside of Roy, Lucas, and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst in an underserved role), seemingly the only other person on earth with a care for Alton’s actual wellbeing is NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). His job means that he has to track Roy and Alton’s progress, but he does so with more empathy than any of his colleagues. This is aided by another very engaging turn by Driver, using his naturally disarming and ungainly charm to create a multi-layered role that could have otherwise been rather thankless.
Any more said about Midnight Special’s story would be damaging to a film that delights so much in teasing out its world and character motivations at a deliberate and satisfying pace. A great score and rich sound design help Nichols build his atmosphere of uncertainty, and the restricting of the setting to rural and suburban Texas means that there’s rarely a moment when you can be entirely sure of when the film is set. It’s not the full Spielberg Americana, but it manages to come very close without feeling dated.
Michael Shannon again proves that he’s one of the most magnetic screen presences working at the moment, using his height and inherently intimidating build and face to make Roy’s genuine deep care for his son that much more striking. Lieberher is also a great find as Alton, giving an intelligent performance of a boy whose access to the world is simultaneously overwhelming and limited. They share a great rapport, and when Roy tells Alton ‘I like worrying about you’, it’s a moment built out of genuine understanding between the two leads.
Parental concerns are a running theme in Nichols’ films, but his own entry into the world of fatherhood elevates their usage here. Protecting one’s children is probably the most powerful possible motivation for any character, and to see it portrayed as a constant hum of nervousness rather than the typical bursts of frantic panic seen in so many other films is powerfully refreshing. When Midnight Special puts this idea to the side to explore its more concretely sci-fi concepts it loses some steam, but there’s enough well done overlap between the two to keep the tone and stakes consistent.
Buying in as fully as possible to the superpowers side of Midnight Special is absolutely necessary for one to properly enjoy the film, as once you do, Alton’s gifts/curses just add to the impact of the father/son dynamic at the movie’s heart. Nichols has experimented with the supernatural before, from Take Shelter’s visions of the future to the suggestion that the title character of Mud may be a divine presence, and his move into the genre wholesale is an understated yet very exciting success. With his awards-friendly Loving also on track for a release this year, Nichols is having a rousing 2016 that should bring him the spotlight he so richly deserves.