Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen | Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Family and encroaching doom seem to be staple themes in Jeff Nichols’ filmography thus far with Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud all dealing with ideas of how the familial unit can be disturbed or destroyed but each of his films have had a different feel and approach to them which has made them feel legitimately different. With Midnight Special he does this again, with sci-fi of the 1980’s having a direct sway over its thriller narrative throughline but also in its attention to character amid the wonder.
Starting with a disconcerting in media res jolt, Midnight Special intrigues from the beginning with Nichols cleverly introducing two men, a father and his friend, already having supposedly kidnapped a child and on their way to wherever it is they’re going. The first half or so of the film is primarily concerned with plot as we see hints of what is to come along with the gradual introduction of characters with different agendas but all fixated on a boy with mysterious powers. The powers are shown off in intensely disconcerting scenes which are all the more troubling as there is no real intent there, he can’t help it or control it and instead we have to see those around deal with the fallout. Jaeden Liberher has to do a lot of heavy lifting here but in a quiet not overtly “child actor” way and he does a terrific job. Growing ever more comfortable in his skin, he has to portray an other-worldliness while at the same time showing affection for those trying to protect him and the actor does that perfectly.
Michael Shannon continues his association with Jeff Nichols with a role not unlike his character in Take Shelter, again he’s trying desperately to protect his family but there seems to be more warmth here, he’s a man driven by love, not apocalyptic visions, and the struggle his character has had before the film very much informs how Shannon plays it throughout.
A masterstroke here by Nichols also is in the casting of Joel Edgerton who gamely cedes the limelight throughout but plays a crucial role here, an outsider to the family unit driven by the same agenda but in a more pragmatic way, not driven by love but instead by the mission. Kirsten Dunst also excels in a role which in lesser hands could have been “weepy mother” but the strength she finds through the course of the narrative plays well on her face mixed with the knowledge that in a few days things will never be the same for her again. Adam Driver has less to do here but his character is involved in one of the most startling scenes and his own obsession in discovering what’s happening is played for more subtle comedic moments.
Nichols also shows that he’s a man with a keen visual eye. There are sequences here filled with tension but also some cracking shot. A car bombing down a road at night with its lights off as David Wingo’s propulsive score moves the action along, the boy’s powers show themselves off in old-school light beams and the ending revelations both boggle the mind but also have a sense of beauty which makes the journey feel worthwhile.
Midnight Special is tremendous. While feeling of a piece with the director’s work up to now, it also forges its own path as a loving tribute to 80’s sci-fi as well as a story of how parenthood can swing from euphoria to dread and back again.