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Special Indeed: Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols made my favorite film of 2013, Mud, so I was keen to see his latest effort. Midnight Special is not an easy film to describe, but it held me in its thrall from start to finish. It also serves as a wonderful starring showcase for Michael Shannon, who has been in all of Nichols’ previous pictures (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud) and reveals a tender side he’s seldom had a chance to explore until now.

The movie is best described as a science-fiction thriller. At its center is an 8-year-old boy (beautifully played by Jaeden Lieberher) who has special powers that mark him as a target. Some want to exploit him, others think he is a messenger of God. His father (Shannon) doesn’t understand what his son is all about but he has faith in the boy and is determined to protect him. He and a childhood buddy (Joel Edgerton) take off with the youngster, hoping they can reach their destination before someone—the police, the government, a religious sect—can lay their hands on him.

Midnight Special works because Nichols casts a spell over us, the kind that’s all too rare, especially in the science-fiction genre. Yet this is far from typical sci-fi. In the press notes, Nichols explains, “I wanted to make a chase movie, a movie about guys moving on back roads through the American South in a fast car, driving at night with their lights off. They’re on the run, they’re being hunted and, at the same time, they’re racing towards something important, though we don’t immediately know what it is.”

Sam Shepard-Midnight Special-680

Photo by Ben Rothstein – Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

If you’ve seen Take Shelter, you know that this is not the first time writer-director Nichols has dealt with paranormal activity in the lives of ordinary people. It’s because the characters are relatable that we’re able to become absorbed in the labyrinthine mystery that envelops and often confounds them.

The superior supporting cast includes Adam Driver as an inquisitive NSA  agent who doesn’t follow the rulebook, Kirsten Dunst as Lieberher’s estranged mother, and Sam Shepard as a religious cult leader who feels he has a claim on the boy.

I was so invested in this movie that I questioned some of its story turns and internal logic as the film unfolded—I so wanted to accept every detail—but in the end, I surrendered to Nichols’ mastery as a storyteller. I could nitpick if I chose to, but I won’t, because I derived so much satisfaction from the experience of watching Midnight Special. Like its filmmaker, it is one of a kind.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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