Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard
Runtime: 112 Minutes
Jeff Nichols’ relatively short filmography houses an eclectic variety of tastes and genres, which draw from brutal realism (Shotgun Stories) to the realms of magic realism (Mud). Within these pictures though, Nichols has been able to explore a selection of themes concerning the solidarity and endurance of the human spirit in the face of sociopolitical conflict or something approaching the divine intervention of the unknown entering into the real world.
Themes such as these resurface in Midnight Special, a science fiction film that in many ways defies the command of its own genre. Like some of the greatest works of any artist, Midnight Special is a picture that shows us the heart of its author; its storyline conceived at a time in which Nichols became a father, and the unimaginable fear of anything happening to his child becoming the core emotional thrust of the story he wanted to tell, as seen through the eyes of Roy (Michael Shannon) and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).
Wearing the enthused hallmarks of it's influential 80's inspirations with pride, the ethereal sensitivity of John Carpenter’s Starman appears to be where Nichols has drawn much of the films visual taste. As well as the impact of the works of Carpenter though, the grandeur of mystery of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind casts a present spell over the films narrative, offering up a potent blend of old method, emotionally complex but driven science fiction that hasn’t been fully emulated since 2011's Super 8 (J.J. Abrams admirable but tired homage to the same genre). Rian Johnson's Looper seems like a closer, more recent companion regarding its desolate, nomadic setting.
Unlike the unreserved but delicately handled emotional manipulations of Spielberg’s furious prowess, Nichols applies the same calm restraint that is present in his prior works. The film is a slow burn that begins small and tightly wound with tension, slowly unravelling itself into a far bigger picture by the time its brilliant third act rolls around. Its concentrated focus on the nature of its characters and their emotional connections to one another is what drives both their motivations and the plot forward.
There are many different things going on at once from the positions of a multitude of different characters, and in some ways, they don’t fully manage to work as cohesively as one might hope, with at least one or two developments either forgotten about or left behind as the film races towards its climax. In fairness to the director though, this shift of attention may sacrifice the intricacy of the plot but keeps the focus where it really needs to be - it’s a film lead by its heart, not its head.
Belief appears to be the shared concern amongst these characters in their different ways. The government see young Alton as a weapon, while the ambiguous religious cult led by Sam Shepard appears smitten with the child’s abilities to see into the great beyond and worship him practically as a saviour.
But the films’ allegiances fall at the feet of Alton and his parents, and their limited understanding of their child’s gifts being the least of their problems when it’s concerning his safety. The magnitude of both the nature of his abilities and his place in the world mirror the more complex depictions of the superheroes in his comic books, and the morality of what is being done in his name by both the followers and his own father is an open question that is left for the audience to think on as they leave the theatre.
The paternal bond between Roy and Alton hold the story’s most powerful emotional tie, with Shannon delivering in unrecognisably tender form as the flawed and gruff father figure whose love for his son transcends the boundaries of the supernatural forces that are forcing them apart. Joel Edgerton is on great form as companion and confidant Lucas, while Adam Driver brings a humane lightness to the role of FBI expert Paul Sevier in his efforts to find the boy. It’s a shame then that the film’s only major female presence in the form of Kirsten Dunst as the mother, Sarah, appears a little underfed regarding dialogue and motivation beyond the fact that she is the other parent – although Dunst’s excellent performance manages to cover most of this through sheer will alone.
The action sequences, though few in number, arrive in short bursts of intensity and keep you gruellingly invested in the drama at hand. The CGI is naturally implemented, with the cinematography and minimalist score echoing its Carpenter origins with pride. Even if by the end many of the plots many tendrils and set-ups leave much to be either explained or wrapped up, it’s an experience that will keep you both thinking and feeling for days to come.