Director Jeff Nichols set himself a high bar to clear with 2012’s Mud, a movie that kickstarted the modern McConaissance while being a thrilling coming-of-age story. Mud‘s modern-day spin on Tom Sawyer ending up being one of my favourite movies of the past few years and rebooted Matthew McConaughey’s career in the process, announcing a great talent in Nichols. Midnight Special carries on Mud‘s beguiling sense of place heavily rooted in the American South (Mud takes place in Arkansas; Midnight Special journeys from Texas and heads East towards Louisiana) as Nichols’ makes his most outright genre film yet, an engrossing sci-fi yarn that thrums with an elusive central mystery that at times becomes almost too restrained.
While Nichols’ connection to his past work is strong (including casting Michael Shannon, who’s been in all the director’s movies), Midnight Special is heavily indebted to Steven Spielberg’s early sci-fi hits like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. Here the E.T.-like character is 8-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy who’s been spirited away from life on a cult-like ranch by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The thing about Alton is that he’s special, as in glowing-from-the-eyes and possibly-speaks-to-God special. And like those lovable mogwais from Gremlins, Alton has his own strict rules – keep him out of the sun and out of trouble.
The boy’s considerable powers (which are honed and defined throughout the movie) have attracted the attention of the U.S. government, and Midnight Special operates as an extended chase scene (with meditative moments) as Roy and Lucas attempt to keep Alton safe while figuring out if his powers can serve a higher purpose. Is he channeling God, aliens, or some other unknowable force? Will Michael Shannon be super intense and explode in rage at least once? The answers are: maybe and yes.
There are other intriguing ideas introduced along the way. Some of the beliefs and ways of life on The Ranch are hinted at, as we see cryptic sermons from their leader Calvin (Sam Shepard) – Alton’s adopted father who’s eager to bring the boy back into his religious flock who worship the boy. Kirsten Dunst continues her recent winning streak (along with TV’s Fargo) as Alton’s mother, a conflicted woman who seemingly gave up her son for the greater good. And Adam Driver brings some levity as Paul Sevier, an empathetic FBI specialist who becomes an expert on the extraordinary boy at the centre of a national manhunt.
That lightness is appreciated as Midnight Special can be overly ponderous at times, though occasional bursts of action prove that Nichols can stage a thrilling sequence and quicken the audience’s pulse when needed (heck, the opening title card alone sends chills).
The movie’s imbued with a Spielbergian sense of wonder too, as Nichols uses The Beard’s patented method of showing the scale and impact of Alton’s abilities through other people’s awed reactions. It seems like each successive instance of Alton’s powers is more grand and weird than the last, leading to an eventual reveal that retains much of the film’s mystery while still providing a satisfying conclusion. This feat’s especially impressive considering the film’s relatively low budget, but Nichols doesn’t skimp – providing striking visuals like a night vision car chase and a shattered satellite streaming down to earth in fiery pieces.
The climax hammers home the Spielberg comparison, as the motley group has to outwit government agents (as in E.T.) with the help of specialists and laypersons who believe (like Close Encounters), as they run towards the danger to converge on a spot that has significant meaning. There’s also Superman allusions throughout, as the sheltered Alton voraciously consumes comics and even asks about kryptonite (as he himself becomes increasingly weakened). Is Alton a saviour like Kal-El? A product of some strange experiment?
Even if Midnight Special may not rate as director Nichols’ best work (trailing both Mud and the super-intense Take Shelter), it proves to be a high-minded indie sci-fi romp that’s elevated by a great cast and a compelling, if somewhat familiar, core of mystery. The movie admirably refuses to provide all the answers but drops enough breadcrumbs have people buzzing in the lobby after seeing it. It also outdoes recent sci-fi epics like the turgid Tomorrowland, proving that sometimes less is more and inspiration (and artful homages, which Midnight Special feels like) can trump crass commercial impulses.
Midnight Special (2016)
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 112 minutes