Monday, April 4, 2016


In the past five years, writer/director Jeff Nichols has done tremendous work in exploring the family dynamic, due in no small part to his ability to place a family story inside of another genre. In TAKE SHELTER (2011) it was paranoia, and with MUD (2012) it was broken-home drama mashed with backwoods fables. Nichols’ latest film, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, once again explores the ins and outs of family, this time while playing with science fiction.

Roy (Michael Shannon) with help from his best friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) flee a religious cult led by Calvin (Sam Shepherd), with Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher)…an eight-year-old boy who has otherworldly abilities. They meet with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and flee across the country to a mysterious location with the cult and the government, led by Paul (Adam Driver) hot on their heels.

The success or failure of any science fiction flick is how much we are willing to buy into the fantastical elements of the story. With MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, the abilities and powers of Alton are not only believable, but are also what drives the story. Alton can do simple things such as hear radio signals through the air, or deadly things such as pulling satellites out of space or granting visions to those brave enough to look him in the eye. His abilities are what makes three different powers of the world come after him for different reasons; the government thinks of him as a weapon, the religious cult believes he will show them the way to paradise…and his parents just want to keep him safe.

And it is with the parents where Jeff Nichols’ story truly takes shape. While the film has many themes working such as belief and fear, it is really a story about the great lengths a mom and dad will take to keep their children from harm. Even after Roy and Sarah realize that whatever awaits them at the mysterious location Alton is drawn to may result in their son vanishing…they still press on at all costs. It’s parental love that Nichols is playing with in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, and there is no fantastical element in the film that can overcome how powerful that simple theme is.

The film begins right in the middle of a lot going on, and Nichols brilliantly fills in the backstory through some clever reveals; some come very slow, and others with shocking, jump out-of-your-pants moments. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL also serves as a mystery thriller, and it is mesmerizing waiting for the next reveal to answer questions. Alton’s powers, which become more volatile and unpredictable during the day, force the family to travel by night…giving Nichols the opportunity to shoot some startling and beautiful night-time cinematography.  The pacing is brisk, the humor is sparse but well-timed, and David Wingo’s haunting score has a way of getting inside our heads; just like the movie will.

Acting is superb. Michael Shannon continues his reputation as one of our finest actors here. Although he doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, he communicates legions of emotion in a single glance. His face shows his soul, and there is never a moment where we doubt his resolve as a committed father. Kirsten Dunst is also excellent, having now fully graduated to the more adult-roles and is perfect as a loving mother. The supporting cast of Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, and Sam Shepherd are also excellent. Young Jaeden Lieberher, as the center of the film, shoulders the burden perfectly.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is one of those perfect films which plays with many themes and genres, but never gets hung up or distracted by them and sticks with an A to Z storyline which is never confusing or hard to buy into. The whopper of a finale, topped off with a junior-whopper closing shot, brings all of the many themes together in a thought-provoking way. This is a film which can work for many audiences; sci-fi fans, drama-critics, and any parent who has ever loved their children.


1 comment:

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