Jeff Nichols throws another family into turmoil in this smart sci-fi thriller starring Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst. Lyndon Wells takes a look…
Midnight Special marks acclaimed writer/director Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, following Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud. The most critically acclaimed was the ignition of the Matthew McConaughey McConaissance, Mud. Midnight Special has a thriller structure with supernatural overtones built on the familiar Nichols theme of family bonds and trust.
Midnight Special finds regular collaborator Michael Shannon as Roy, who discovers that his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has powers that make him, in the eyes of some, a terrible threat. The worry comes from government agents (Adam Driver) and an extreme religious sect overseen by Sam Shepard’s driven leader. The government views Alton as a potential weapon, whereas the religious types think he is their saviour. Roy decides to go on the run alongside Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as it is vital to get Alton to a specific location.
Nichols engages the audience by trusting them to make vital links allowing the story to naturally unfold and reveal itself. For some the ultimate lack of answers may frustrate especially if not emotionally invested in the film. It is clear the emotive theme of parenthood initiated the film’s creative process. Nichols himself said: “Having a child means giving up a part of yourself to the universe. If something happens to that child, you will feel it because you love him so much. It’s a helpless feeling, too, knowing that there is now this person in your life that you would do anything for, but in some ways you really have no control over.”
These feelings are amplified in the film’s themes as the parents must accept the lack of control over their precious child and relinquish their trust to the universe; a universe which may be beyond our understanding and realisation. As Lucas (Edgerton) at one point observes, they would have made a good family, but the universe has other ideas. Evoking the emotional challenge and privilege of parenthood within a sci-fi model, also recently done by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, is a sure-fire way to win my emotional investment.
The other major thematic contributor is the nostalgic mood and style of 1980s science fiction films. Nichols quotes his inspiration to be from such classics as John Carpenter’s Starman and has masterfully captured that style evoking an extremely positive nostalgia. The story is paramount above any special effects, the film is sub two hours, there is no extensive backstory, the characters are well written allowing their emotions to convey their past and the audience is trusted to make vital connections. There’s an old saying “they don’t make them like they used too”, well Nichols does and it’s better than you remember.
Shannon’s father Roy has limited dialogue but holds such depth of emotion within his face his motivations are clear throughout. Roy is a character without ego that will risk everything on the blind faith he has put in his son. The lengths he will go to for his son are highlighted when reunited with Alton’s mother, an understated and effective Kirsten Dunst. The emotional bond between the parents is convincing with limited backstory, we know they are both fleeing/rejected from the religious sect pursuing them. As with much of the film the bold decision is made to prioritise emotional character depth over fact and explanation.
The young Jaden Lieberher also flourishes under Nichols’ direction and Shannon’s intense interaction, but for me the two star turns are the supporting characters played by Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver. Both provide lighter moments allowing humorous relief within the tense high-stakes emotional journey. Driver plays NSA analyst Paul Sevier complete with back-pack and notepad, who extenuates his earnest charm to great effect. However, I connected most with Roy’s old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) who is as committed to Alton’s fate as his father. Lucas represents the audience as he knows and understands just as much. He reacts to the supernatural in an extremely pragmatic approach and as details of his past are revealed the magnitude of his sacrifice becomes evident. The emotional investment of his performance captures the audience and you never question his decisions or personal risk.
I desperately want to give this film five stars and perhaps in time I will, but for now it garners an impressive four star recommendation. The 1980s nostalgia generated a huge amount of good will and this lack of originality in style and mood won’t be for everyone. However, the emotional themes and competent visual storytelling demands a cinematic viewing. These themes trump factual explanation and the third act does have the potential to frustrate. David Wingo’s score has an emphatic repetitive quality that satisfyingly envelops, acting as a pulse to the film’s journey. Nichols has stuck with the same cinematographer through all his films, Adam Stone, and Midnight Special is his best yet. It is visually creative evoking 1980s UFOs and a sunrise you will never forget, coupled with naturalistic but sparse special effects.
I hope Midnight Special reaches the audience it deserves. Nichols is one of the most exciting directors working today who has crafted his own niche to great effect.
Written by Lyndon Wells
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
Released: 2016 / Genre: Sci-fi/Drama/Thriller
Country: USA / IMDB
The film is released in UK cinemas this week…