Movie Review: ‘Midnight Special’
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, and Jaeden Lieberher
Plot: A man and his super-powered son evade government agents and religious zealots.
Jeff Nichols is one of the most exciting and consistent talents in cinema today. His movies thus far have condensed Southern zeitgeists into classic nuts-and-bolts dramas the likes of which just don’t get made anymore. With Midnight Special, he is embracing ’80s drive-in fare that populates early Stephen Spielberg and John Carpenter filmographies. They were these cheapie sci-fi flicks constantly searching for an emotional backbone to support their genre thrills, but their inherent “cheapie”-ness always stifled that aspect. They got by on simply being cool as hell. Well, maybe not Spielberg’s, they have always been solid.
Nichols manages to find that emotional backbone in his usual collaborator, Michael Shannon. Shannon plays Roy, a father of a young boy with special powers and former cultist. This cult, only every referred to as “The Ranch,” was based around the boy and the gifts they believed he received from God. When Roy finally gets his head on straight, a moment we are never privy too, he hits the road with his son to keep him safe. Shannon is more recognizable for his crazed and angry character portrayals, both of which come in handy when depicting Roy’s utter desperation, but he cuts it with a strong soft-spoken paternal warmth. It is mixed with an impeccable chemistry with Jaeden Lieberher, who plays Alton, Roy’s gifted son. He is a young performer with a level of self-awareness usually lacking in young performers.
It is their relationship that drives the movie, and every relationship in the movie, no matter how fleeting, is constantly re-framed in how it affects the relationship between Roy and Alton. Even when they reach out to Alton’s mother, played by a terrific Kirsten Dunst, whose relationship should be just as intimate, it better serves Roy’s determination to reunite them. Nichols, a new father, uses this sci-fi parable to explore the characteristics of fatherhood, specifically the way one individual can put the weight of the world on your shoulders. Or the importance of trying to understand them and relate to them, nurturing them so that they can become the people they are supposed to.
Luckily, Nichols isn’t the kind of storyteller who just wants to fill his sci-fi yarn with lasers and zombies. He uses it to reveal something about ourselves, and that is where the inherent “cheapie”-ness of the sub-genre comes into play. Nichols previous three features (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud) are real feet-on-the-ground stories. They used low budgets and high concepts to spin their tales, and when given the chance to do a studio picture, he keeps the special effects to a minimum and plays out the sci-fi ambitions conceptually. Those older movies that this movie was emulating were doing it more out of necessity, but Nichols sees the strength in holding back. Each effects driven shot is a calculated move that works in perfect unity with the heartfelt characters and adventurous plot to create the first complete cinematic experience of the year.