Strongly favouring emotional resonance over narrative certainty, Jeff Nichols’ latest, Midnight Special, takes cinematic cues from the likes of Starman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. while inviting viewers on a thrilling ride into the unknown. Boasting Nichols’ strongest cast to date, Midnight Special bestows its youngest member with wisdom far beyond his age and its more senior characters with the childlike wonder they believed to be long lost — gently inviting its audience to do the very same.
Roy (Nichols’ perennial go-to, Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are armed and on the run. Possessing the carefulness of seasoned lawbreakers, the two men have — according to a breaking news bulletin — kidnapped young Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) and are holding him for some dubious purpose. As Roy and Lucas prepare to move out, a tenderness between Roy and Alton is on full display, hinting at far more than the brief telecast would have suggested. Their familial bond revealed, Roy is transformed from a calloused and perhaps even sadistic kidnapper into a loving and concerned father. As the trio drive into the night, they seem to share an uncanny knowledge of the future that is keeping them rigidly scheduled and apprehensively on their course.
Jeff Nichols the director loves to revel in his characters’ stillness, while Nichols the writer wants to see his characters bleed (emotionally speaking, anyway). This dualism carries over to the story itself, which presents a constant polarization between everything on screen. The calm and generally serene days are juxtaposed with the frenzy of panicked nights (Roy and Lucas will only move Alton after dark), while the gentle beauty of the southern landscape masks the harsh ugliness that crawls over its surface. Roy’s paternal love and concern for Alton strongly opposes the faith he must have in his son’s unique gift, toppling their protector/protected hierarchy revealing a relationship based on a father’s profound trust for his anointed son. When Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), joins at the halfway mark, her emotional core robustly deviates from Roy’s unflinching conviction. Having written the picture following a medical emergency suffered by his young son, Nichols seems to revel in the uncertainties of life and knows that true loss of control is only achieved by the collision of two opposing forces.
At the press conference immediately following the screening, Nichols stated that “[Midnight Special] is the culmination of a narrative experiment … to try and remove as much exposition as possible. No character will speak about something the other character knows about … up to the point of endangering the narrative.” Nichols’ impressive grasp of gentle ambiguity shines throughout the film. Never quite crossing the border into equivocation, Midnight Special maintains a beguiling pull that begs a closer look while impressing upon its audience an unnoticeably mounting tension that strikes once the increased adrenaline levels refuse to be ignored. The freewheeling sense that nobody has a clue (except for Lieberher’s Alton) becomes a bastion of safety for an audience left reeling by this tale of aliens, government conspiracies, and a child-worshipping cult.
Midnight Special has an emotional core compelling enough to draw in massive crowds of cinemagoers, a sci-fi grandeur showy enough to pull in the Marvel/DC crowd (is there a still a DC crowd?), and a visual acuity worthy of the interest of even the most hardened cinephiles. A fresh yet familiar tale of love and faith, Midnight Special benefits immensely from an ultra-talented cast and a director who has a firm grasp on telling his extraordinarily personal story.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.