Midnight Special is not bound by mainstream formula, genre expectations or even conventional storytelling. The new film from writer/director Jeff Nichols overflows with sequences that begin strikingly and develop is surprising ways.
The establishing scenes gradually set up the premise, in which a father (Michael Shannon) has kidnapped his son, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). Along with a getaway driver (Joel Edgerton), the three are on the run and in pursuit by the FBI. On their trail is an inexperienced scientific expert (Adam Driver) and the leader of a church (Sam Shepard), who both seek to detain Alton, but for different reasons. Alton is calm, awfully kind and frequently wears swimming goggles, in order to contain his strange ability: if he removes his eye-piece during the day, a massive beam of light shines from out of his pupils. This detail, introduced early, is far from the only strange thing about Alton.
Late in the film, the audience is still discovering layers to the characters and the story, which reminds me of the great works by Stephen King that aren’t horror tales. Nichols’ previous films include Take Shelter, which similarly explored faith versus reason, and Mud, a showcase for one of the best performances Matthew McConaughey has ever given.
His latest is an ensemble piece, though young Lieberher (so good as Bill Murray’s only friend in St Vincent) anchors it by making Alton a compelling and disarmingly sweet figure. Shannon once again offers Nichols his considerable intensity. It’s always a pleasure to see Shepard (though his role is too small) and Kirsten Dunst is excellent as Alton’s loving and fearful mother. Driver, hot off playing Kylo Ren in some sci-fi thing, is a welcome presence, adding droll humor to his scenes.
The DNA of the screenplay can be traced back to John Carpenter’s Starman and pieces of The X-Files, Powder and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Yet, while those works had expansive narratives, Midnight Special chooses to be vague at times and has more plot than it needs. For example, the segment dealing with The Ranch, the church led by Shepard’s character, is rich enough for an entire movie.
Unlike Nichols’ overlong Mud, Midnight Special is under two hours, moves briskly, has no unnecessary or wasted scenes and draws us in by consistently taking his story into surprising territory. Although Nichols isn’t a showy filmmaker (a quality he shares with Carpenter), his latest is meant for the big screen. Whereas too many recent movies are best viewed at home, this is a welcome example of a film that needs to be seen in a theater with an audience.
There are some weird, unspoken ties to Twilight Zone-The Movie, which also utilized the Credence Clearwater Revival title song (presumably present here for its line “…shine your light on me…”). They also share the presence of a powerful little boy, though saying more would unwisely spoil things. This is the kind of movie where the less you know going in, the better your experience will be.
Nichols understands that special effects are best used as a storytelling tool and not a means of distraction or a key component to hang an entire movie on. Here, the CGI is dazzling and plentiful, but always in service of the film and not the other way around. Weeks later, I can barely recall an outstanding visual effect from Batman v Superman. On the other hand, I’ll never forget the ending of this movie.
This, along with 10 Cloverfield Lane, is one of the great surprises of 2016, a thriller with novel twists and a great storyteller in charge. Midnight Special wants to wow its audience and succeeds, again and again.