‘Midnight Special’ Provides A Stunning Close Encounter With Complete Filmmaker Freedom (Movie Review)

midnight special thumbThere’s something pretty cool about seeing an indie director with a knack for human drama take on a genre film. Okay, so that applies to almost any newbie director handed the keys to a franchise, but how about one who has developed the story himself and is allowed by a studio to make such a movie completely in his own voice? Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) has accomplished such a task with Midnight Special, a fantastic sci-fi chase movie that is undeniably a film he developed and put to screen.



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Part of the joy comes from the story naturally revealing itself to us. We are thrown into the middle of a plot involving two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) who have precious cargo in the form of an eight-year-old boy, Alton (Jason Lieberher). The three of them can seemingly only travel at night, with no desire to cause any harm, despite being on the run from the law. Adam Driver is a curious G-man heading up the main task force find Alton, while Sam Shepard plays the leader of some kind of religious sect who is also bent on locating the boy.

It does not take long for us to realize Alton is special in ways that go far beyond simply being gifted or a savant. The poster for this film indicates as much, but Nichols is smart in how he makes known the important pieces of information. As a writer and director who has played with giving actors very little dialogue, forcing them to emote through physical performance, Nichols is able to put that to the test for his first studio feature. It results in a film not relying on characters straight-up handing over what’s in their head and getting us to feel comfortable with those we come across.

I could delve into the genuine spectacle Midnight Special delivers at key moments in the film, but it would be better to first point out how genuinely goodhearted a majority of these characters are. Aside from a group looking to get back Alton by any means and an understanding that Shannon’s character believes in the greater good, there is a sense of decency in almost every major character. Kirsten Dunst, for example, enters midway through the film and you get a sense of who the character is based on her interactions with the other characters, along with a main objective, which is to believe in the quest involving Alton.

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The rest of the cast is just as good. Driver’s character is a delight for the curious way he investigates the chase after Alton. He may be working for the government, but there is a sense of glee he has that never goes unnoticed. Edgerton also plays well with very little, as his perfectly understated performance goes a long way in having us understand his loyalty. Really, understated is a perfect word for all the performers, along with the tone of the film, which is wonderfully fitting for a genre film handled by Nichols.

With a studio budget (which still isn’t very high here), Midnight Special does have explosions, gun fights, car chases and even fiery objects falling out of the sky. I can’t say these scenes don’t call attention to themselves, but nothing is ever gratuitous. This is a testament to how well the screenplay naturally evolves to allow for larger-scaled sequences. Even when the film goes for shock value delivery, we know why or come to understand what brought us into certain moments.

If I am being a bit vague, it is because there is something special about seeing a completely original sci-fi film handled in the voice of a modern auteur. It is no secret Nichols was inspired by some key films from Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter (Starman), but as opposed to attempting to resemble the work of another (think J.J. AbramsSuper 8), we have a film with its own identity that simply calls to mind similar sensibilities. There’s no mistaking Midnight Special as the work of someone else and it is due to the craftsmanship seen here.

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David Wingo’s score is a good thing to look at in terms of how this film is able to bring you into its world. The stark cinematography from Adam Stone is deceptively cold, as you are presented various real-world settings that keep the fantastical elements grounded. You even have Nichols’ regular Michael Shannon providing another great subdued performance. Best of all is the work done by the whole crew to allow an audience to feel an emotional and spiritual connection to what is going on. A climactic event should represent this, if not the various glances exchanged by characters throughout this film.

All of this said and I haven’t even accounted for the layers of subtext and religious implications many could take away from this film. Suffice it to say that Midnight Special plays like any bravura sci-fi film should in the way it allows viewers to have questions and come up with their own answers. I wouldn’t say this film does not deliver the goods when it counts, but the reward of seeing such extraordinary sights is made better by leaving the theater having questions and smiling while you ponder them.


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