Synopsis – A father and son go on the run, pursued by the government and a cult drawn to the child’s special powers.
My Take – Being a huge fan of the sci-fi genre, I have admired films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by Steven Spielberg and Starman by John Carpenter. While this film drops the most strikingly resemblance with Close Encounters while also being parallel to a host of other Sci-Fi films including Cocoon, E.T., Tomorrowland and Village of the Damned, writer/director Jeff Nichol‘s screenplay is intelligent enough to keep us intrigued till the end. Jeff Nichols has made a name for himself crafting slow burn dramas with heart, mystery, and excellent acting. Having seen Mud (2012) and Take Shelter (2011) and enjoyed them immensely, I expected this one to be his best yet, with a plot that was right up my alley. Without a doubt, Nichols delivers once again, but not without a few bumps. But sure enough, this is his best film yet. A near perfect modern day science fiction film with a very old school feel running through its veins. Jeff Nichols has made it no secret those classic sci-fi films have been an inspiration for this film however, I find the fact that his relationship with his own son was used as an inspiration too, much more intriguing. Though the story line within the film may be familiar (government seeks to capture an individual with extraordinary powers believing them to be a weapon) it’s presentation is different to any previous incarnations seen on screen. While superhero films that feature a premise such as this usually utilize it as a side story amongst the action set pieces, Nichols makes the entire focus of his film, a human drama that is driven by it’s characters. The story follows Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a young boy with extraordinary powers who has been “kidnapped” by his birth father Roy (Michael Shannon) from a religious cult camp led by his adopted father Calvin Meyer (Sam Sheperd), who considers him a prophet. Roy is assisted by his childhood buddy, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper and along the way, they also pick up Lucas’ mother Sarah Tomlin (Kirsten Dunst), an ex member of the cult. With all the mysterious events occurring around Alton, the group grabs the attention of the NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), who along with the military, FBI and police chase the group relentlessly. Why is Alton special? Is he a military weapon? Is he misunderstood? Is he an alien? Is he a god? This film slowly unfolds those questions leading us to a very satisfying answer at the end.
Nichols gives us a great ideas driven story whilst still managing to feel like it is done on a small scale. I loved it that it began in the middle of the story, and that we’re catching up as the films goes along, and most importantly they are not spoon feeding us the info along the way. As an audience, the film treats you as intelligent being, someone able to figure out the dot points without having them spelled out to you. It’s a slow burner, and somewhat constrained in terms of story, but it’s got a vivid imagination. Just as much as any other science fiction piece out there maybe more. I also liked the execution of mixing in religion with sci-fi that felt so real. As the film goes on there are moments of surrealism that is never over-blown and does not distract from the pacing and tone. Whilst trying to work everything out, there was a particular scene about two-thirds of the way through that got me completely hooked. Then we get a pleasing conclusion for every character involved that also leaves some questions opened to our interpretation. Mystery is a strong point for this film, the entire mystery surrounding Alton’s powers, what will happen on that specific date and the reason a religious cult want him back, all playing a part in making the story such a captivating one. In many ways, it’s a road film, and in others it is full-blown science fiction-meets-the horror aspects of “Village of the Damned” with shades of David Lynch. The rural backwoods of the south and its rundown gas stations and forlorn meadows and wetlands stand as the backdrop against which the action is set—mostly at night—and Nichols has a keen eye for visuals; it’s an aesthetically beautiful movie, artfully shot and eye-catching. We are also reminded that our society inevitably assumes the worst when something we don’t understand appears right in front of us. The Ranch sees the boy as a savior, and the government labels him a weapon. Religious themes aside, though, Nichols draws on both the paranoia of those 1980s films – the feeling that the government is a largely faceless, monolithic force, out to control and suppress all forms of wonder – and on Steven Spielberg‘s blockbusters film making rhythms. Plus, family is a central theme in all Jeff Nichols‘ movies as well as couple relationships. Always a contradictory love or even an impossibly love, a love that has to fight in order to survive. There are, unfortunately, some weak points within the film and while some of it’s strongest aspects are it’s three lead characters, it’s the secondary ones that cause it to falter in places.
Kirsten Dunst feels out of place, popping up in the latter half of the film as Alton’s mother, and her character never receives full development after she is introduced with her reasons for being excommunicated from the cult being alluded to yet never fully explored. Similarly, Adam Driver is criminally underused as NSA specialist Paul Sevier following his scene stealing performance in The Force Awakens. Never able to fully delve into the character, Driver does his best with the material and manages to provide several moments of comic relief as an agent out of his depth. However the film’s leads do a fantastic job throughout, with Michael Shannon in particular delivering a memorable performance. Having proved himself to be a powerhouse on screen in recent years with his commanding presence, Shannon‘s role in here isn’t as flashy as some of his other work, yet it’s the delicate nature of it that makes him standout. He’s able to balance his performance between desperation and ruthlessness perfectly, silently pondering his next move in one scene and urging his friend to shoot a police officer by the side of the road in the next. Jaeden Liberher also deserves his fair share of praise thanks to his extremely mature outing as Alton which shows the young actor’s ability to hold his own against established character actors in any given scene as his character is tormented by his powers. Joel Edgerton continues to make interesting choices in his career after his own turn as a writer/director in The Gift and though his performance as Lucas requires more restraint than some of his previous roles, he remains just as impressive. It’s always a relief when a lovely, unique, indie film swoops in under the radar and proves to possess more heart, and far more brains than other recent entries within its genre. Created and shot on an approximate budget of 18 million dollars, Jeff Nichols‘ film as I mentioned before wonderfully pays homage to classic sci-fi films of the ’70s and ’80s, without ripping them off. Of course, it’s got elements of Spielberg and Carpenter pumping through its veins, but at its core, we have Nichols expressing a story of parenthood. A touching bond between father and son, showcased via his ability handle genuine human emotions and indie sensibilities, in his first studio film. Jeff Nichols is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors working today, and I honestly believe that his movies have increasingly become better. On the whole, ‘Midnight Special’ is a slow-burning ideas-driven sci-fi that is refreshing & entertaining making it easily one of the best films of 2016 that deserves all of your attention.
Directed – Jeff Nichols
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 112 minutes