The release date for Jeff Nichols’ latest film Midnight Special was put back by five or six months, and although such schedule-juggling isn’t exactly uncommon and can occur for a number of different reasons, this is exactly the kind of picture that one imagines is a headache-inducer within a studio’s marketing department. How best to sell it to the general public? On the one hand it’s very clearly a work of science fiction, but as with the recent sleeper hit 10 Cloverfield Lane there are periods in which it feels like anything but, at least in terms of what the phrase ‘science fiction’ tends to mean in relation to Hollywood today (um…er…yup). The likes of Midnight Special would have been a guaranteed money-spinner and a major studio release once upon a time, back when Spielberg was serving up the likes of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial or when John Carpenter made Starman (all of which I’ve seen mentioned by critics in comparison with this film), but not today; Nichols’ film does feel at times like a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, even if it avoids the lightness of those mentioned above, but it also feels like a typical 21st Century indie, perhaps due to its restraint with regard to special effects, or perhaps due to the actors that have been cast, most of whom have filmographies that lean towards the small-scale and quirky, despite occasional supporting roles in blockbusters.
The director – once again working off his own screenplay – commendably keeps his ongoing, tight focus on families and friendships to the forefront, rather than allowing his movie to spiral out of control with effects or action in place of character development. At the beginning we’re dropped straight into a story in progress, in which a man named Roy (Michael Shannon) has abducted his own son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from the child’s adopted father and guardian, a religious cult leader played by Sam Shepard. It seems that Alton has special abilities, and Roy has decided that he no longer agrees with the cult’s use of the boy; they view him as the saviour who will offer protection come Judgement Day, which they believe is impending. Roy’s kidnapping of the child is being aided by childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a former State Trooper who has seen Alton’s powers at close hand, while the trio are being trailed by a couple of cult members and the FBI and the NSA, who wish to explore the boy’s abilities for their own purposes. The questions surrounding Alton’s powers – why he has them, why they are significant, and so on – run in tandem with the film’s other mysteries: we don’t know where the fugitives are heading, or why, and initially we don’t know much about their back stories, or pre-existing relationships. The answers to some of the questions are teased out slowly, though sometimes information you wish to have at hand is completely withheld, and new questions continually arise; however, gradually we begin to see the extent of Alton’s abilities via a series of supernatural incidents and, at the same time as the characters, we begin to understand why he is different.
There’s a thin wisp of a superhero thread underpinning all of this; the cosseted Alton reads comic books for the first time, and at one point he even asks Lucas a question related to Superman and kryptonite, perhaps worried that an equivalent weapon lies in wait for him around some distant corner. (The question is asked in front of a semi-smirking Shannon, whose appearances in Man Of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice will still be fresh in the minds of some viewers.) Indeed it’s hard not to think of Clark Kent’s rural upbringing at times, even if the backdrop here is made up of small towns and connecting roads in Texas, Louisiana and Florida, as opposed to Kansas farmland. There’s also a definite sense of the child coming to terms with his abilities, learning to control them, not yet fully understanding what he can do, why he is different or what his true purpose is in relation to the future of humanity. Yet this is no superhero origin story, and it’s as much a pre-apocalyptic drama or a road/chase movie as it is a science fiction piece: fiery objects fall out of the sky, the rapture is mentioned repeatedly, gas stations and motels feature prominently, while the first car the fugitives use brings to mind cult early-70s flicks like Vanishing Point and Two Lane Blacktop; the vehicle is duly fetishized, its engine growling as it roars along the backroads at night.
At times the focus of Midnight Special is on the journey undertaken by the characters, who eventually add Roy’s wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) to their number, though we’re never sure where they are supposed to be going…only that they are nearing their destination as the net closes in on them. At the heart of the film is a simple father-son relationship that relies heavily on Shannon’s abilities as an actor, and we get the full range of his pained expressions here, with brow constantly furrowed and mouth regularly twitching at the corners. He sells the character well, ensuring you believe in his decisions when violence becomes necessary and in his shame when he appears to be ‘failing’ as a father (there’s a great scene here in which a woman admonishes Roy at a gas station for taking his eye off Alton, who has wandered off, while the character’s dismay at losing the boy at another point is keenly felt). The dependable Edgerton, a man blessed with movie star cheekbones, is just as intense as Shannon; his could easily have been a dull sidekick role, one of those characters added to a story so that someone important can die, but Nichols’ writing is too good for that kind of cliche, and the Australian – a very good actor – has been directed well. Instead Lucas becomes ever more fascinating as the story progresses and his loyalty remains intact; of course it helps that some of the questions surrounding the character’s background and motivation remain unanswered, and that he’s a man of few words. By contrast Dunst doesn’t have much to do except for one key scene near the end, which she handles well, while Adam Driver’s performance as a tentative NSA agent has a slight flavour of early Harrison Ford about it (ironically more so than his recent turn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens). It’s impressive ensemble work (without ever being great), and relative-newcomer Lieberher does his part, crucially capturing the same kind of little-boy-lost otherness we once saw in Haley Joel Osment’s character in The Sixth Sense. The young actor also effectively communicates the character’s increasing levels of confidence as the film progresses.
The film benefits further from an atmospheric soundtrack by David Wingo and a distinct, impressive visual design. Cinematographer Adam Stone shoots the winding roads in a number of ways (from above, from the side, in the vehicles, and so on) to ensure the settings don’t become dull through repitition. Much of the first half of the film takes place at night, and the darkness is occasionally expunged by brief, sudden flashes of bright light that emanate from Alton. The boy’s powers – when sporadically seen – are depicted in a manner that is both startling and unsettling, and one of Nichols’ repeated tricks is to pull back and show the bigger picture as the strange events surrounding the boy play out (even going as far as laying one big visual effect on top of a satellite image of the Florida Panhandle at one point). Elsewhere the image of Alton in his protective swimming goggles is destined to lodge itself in the memory of anyone who sees this film, particularly after one scene in which he is isolated against an all-white THX-1138-style backdrop. The effects department is put through its paces during the final act, and the scale of their work is designed to inspire awe, though I was more impressed by a slow-motion car crash that takes place in tandem with the film’s grand finale. There are some intriguing sights to see here, for sure, but the fact is viewers have grown accustomed to grandstanding digital effects in the years since E.T. and the like, and the ones contained in Midnight Special are just…some more of them.
Still, it’s very much a character-driven film, as opposed to a sci-fi feature that’s propelled by attention-grabbing visual effects and action, and its notable that Nichols ends with a series of brief epilogues that feature most of the major players and little else; these, in keeping with the rest of the film, manage to shed light on some of the inherent mysteries, but they also feed the viewer some new questions that will presumably remain unanswered. I do have a couple of gripes – I was intrigued by Sam Shepard’s character enough to be disappointed that he gets completely sidelined, even though his relevance to the story does diminish after a certain point, while occasionally it feels as though the only female character of note is a mere afterthought – but otherwise this filmmaker continues to impress.
Directed by: Jeff Nichols.
Written by: Jeff Nichols.
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, Scott Haze.
Cinematography: Adam Stone.
Editing: Julie Monroe.
Music: David Wingo.
Running Time: 111 minutes.