This review was previously published in The National newspaper.
Having already solidified his place as one of the best and most intriguing filmmakers to emerge in the last few years with the likes of Mud and Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols is back with this terrific mix of sci-fi, chase thriller and family crisis drama.
The film centres on Roy (Michael Shannon), a ferociously determined father who goes on the run with his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) after learning that his son has mysterious special powers.
With Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and a conspicuously tight-lipped accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) by his side, he flees across the American south to escape both a group of religious fanatics and the federal government who are hot on their heels looking to get their hands on the boy.
The most efficient of Nichols’ body of work thus far, it’s the kind of film that doesn’t quite fit into a neat box and is all the better for it, dipping its toes into different worlds to great effect.
It’s a sharp mix of on-the-run thriller, emotional family drama and Spielbergian escapism; not just E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind but his underseen early chase movie The Sugarland Express. But it’s not just about playing on a sense of nostalgia but also reaching for something higher; an ambitious sense of meaning that’s at once terrifically gripping and fascinatingly enigmatic.
Although it’s not exactly a surprise to see Shannon in here (he’s appeared in every one of Nichols’ films to date), he defies expectations nonetheless. He’s usually known for playing strange outsiders but here he brings a quiet intensity and genuine emotion to the role of a sympathetic and devoted father doing what he feels his best for his unique son.
Edgerton is also terrific as the stoic right-hand man on this most dangerous mission of evasion and discovery, while Kirsten Dunst is the best she’s been in years as a bewildered mother doing her best to protect her son.
Star Wars fans will get a kick out of seeing Adam Driver as an expert called in to help the FBI figure out just what the heck this little boy is and what he can do. And relative newcomer Lieberher belies his inexperience, bringing a great mix of natural presence and captivating peculiarity that the key role needed.
With Midnight Special, Nichols has crafted a strange, compelling, deeply fascinating piece of cinema that takes its cues from other films and morphs them into something that feels fresh and ambitious. That ambiguous sense of asking more questions than it’s prepared to answer may frustrate some viewers. But it’s an enthralling treat for those willing to go with it, alive with an atmospheric sense of danger, emotion and good old-fashioned wide-eyed wonderment.