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.”
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.