Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher and Adam Driver
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Rated ‘PG-13’ for thematic elements, some shocking imagery and a world of wonder
Runtime 111 minutes
There is something impressive about a film that plays its cards so close to its chest, yet remains a satisfying moviegoing experience. Like a great card player, what is in his hand is almost irrelevant; it’s when and how he first hides and then reveals them that makes him truly (midnight) special.
If anything, you can accuse Midnight Special, the latest from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) of perhaps being a little too cagey with its details. I think its lack of clear explanation is a boon, however, I understand the point. Too often in movies these days, audiences are bludgeoned over the head with exposition and explanation (and without even the benefit of said exposition/explanation being delivered by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath). As filmgoers – as human beings even – we love a good mystery, we love poking and prodding and seeing where a story is going. Oftentimes, we are disappointed with the destination. Luckily, Midnight Special is all about the ride – it is literally a road movie. In being so tightfisted and downright mysterious, however, it makes the final destination a complete, gobsmacking ‘holy hell, that’s amazing’ delight.
Midnight Special blends the low-budget grind of a John Carpenter film – Starman seems to be a direct reference for Nichols and his cast – and the emotional, family-centered arc of a early Spielberg; such as Close Encounters and, to a lesser extent, E.T. The end result is a Matroyshka doll of intrigue and wonder. The more you open, the less you understand, but the deeper still you want to go. The film begins in media res, and we are told that there is a missing boy, Alton (Jaedan Lieberher) who has been kidnapped by a man, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). The FBI is called in, and so is the NSA. There is a religious cult, headed by the always great Sam Shepard and then…well, to go into any more is to try and see all the cards in Nichols’ hand, and that would be cheating, wouldn’t it? I may have said too much already. This is a film that rewards people for not watching trailers.
Michael Shannon brings his unique brand of fierce determination to the role of Tomlin. Shannon, one of this generation’s greatest, and most under-known actors, exudes a fatherly love and discipline throughout every moment of the film. He’s broken, he’s lost, he’s a bit unsure of what is happening but is driven like mad to ensure he gets to where he needs to be. He commands the screen, as he does in every film, with those unblinking eyes and that grim, lined face of his that so rarely smiles but is so full of life and warmth. Joining him on this little road trip is Lucas, played by the equally great Joel Edgerton, a recent convert to the church of Roy’s understanding and like all newly converted, perhaps more devoted to the cause than its founder. Lucas is the kind of guy who will get things done, little to no questions asked and is a vital component to any road trip movie.
The breakout star of the film, however, is Lieberher as the young child, Alton who is…special. Not in the neuro-atypical sort of way, either; the kind of special that they make movies and religions about. He lacks the precociousness that could have easily been written into his young, incredibly smart and talented child and still looks to his elders for guidance. As he grows in his understanding of himself, it is heartbreaking to watch the bond between him and Roy begin to slip away, too. As E.T. was a movie about a boy coming to find a father figure, Midnight Special is about a boy learning to let go of one. It’s about growing up and leaving the safety of family to journey forth to a bigger and brighter and far better world. It’s about a parent’s fear of losing their child, a fear that never goes away because ‘that’s the deal’. When Midnight Special focuses on family, it soars.
Kirsten Dunst continues to dazzle in her choice of roles, here playing Alton’s mother. Eschewing the spotlight, she’s a perfect complement to Shannon – both are actors who could take any major role they want, but instead opt for the smaller, more complicated characters that only indie films (or television) can provide these days. Dunst is with us at the end, and on her face is written the awe and horror and wonder of the moment and she nails it perfectly. And providing a little bit of comic relief is the one and only Kylo Ren – Adam Driver – as NSA analyst Paul Sevier, who is tracking Roy, Lucas and Alton across the American south. Unlike his federal peers, however, Paul begins to understand the truth behind the kidnapping. Driver plays an excellent geek and his boyish mannerisms give him plenty of awestruck, dumbfounded moments, to which he is perfectly suited.
There are moments in Midnight Special that will shock you. There is no violence, and hardly any swearing. The film simply presents itself as one thing, and as it moves along from west to east, continuously morphs into something else. This makes the hour and fifty one minutes fly by, or at least become the least of your worries. It is hardly ever flashy or fast-paced, yet it is completely and utterly gripping. Deliberate, methodical, and giving you pause enough to catch your breath, before robbing you of it once again.
Midnight Special, like this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (review), is a great example of genre filmmaking couched within a very different narrative. While the latter yanks the rug out from under you in a third act ‘reveal’, the former is a meticulously crafted mystery box that lets you peek inside for a moment every now and then. What you see inside is…well, something wonderful. But I’ll let you see it for yourselves.