Cinema Review: Midnight Special | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 21st, 2024  

Midnight Special

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Mar 18, 2016 Web Exclusive
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Jeff Nichols is four for four. After shuffling between southern gothic drama, portentous doom-based science fiction and coming of age redemption stories, he goes after hard sci-fi with Midnight Special. And it works almost perfectly.

Roy (Michael Shannon) kidnaps his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberer) from the religious cult that sees the boy as their savior, their conduit to God. Alton has special powers. These powers are mysterious and the government is possibly even more interested than the cult. With the help of childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy must get Alton to safety and a specific location for some, unknown to the viewer, reason. This has the trappings of a classic science fiction chase movie. It is, and Nichols executes it very well. But it’s also more than that. His script grounds the fantastic elements in reality with true, believable characters reacting to an extraordinary set of occurrences. Because the people populating this film feel genuine, and are treated with respect and depth, the film is that much more satisfying.

This is aided substantially by the cast. Even minor characters like Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), an agent with the NSA, feels fully realized even if his purpose in the film is limited by a small scope. It’s not his story, after all. But Driver, like the rest of the cast, brings a layered presence to a role that may not have worked with another actor. Shannon and Lieberer own the film, though. It’s a story about the bond between a father and his son as much as it is a science fiction action yarn. Nothing matters more to Roy than his son’s safety, and Shannon plays him through exhausted eyes. His weathered face says more than his lines of dialog. He pushes forward because he doesn’t know what else to do. His son’s gift/problem is something he never thought he’d have to deal with, but he doesn’t have a choice. This could easily push the buttons of parents and children alike. Again, Midnight Special is so real in its depiction of its characters that the science fiction feels more believable, even in its largest moments on screen.

Nichols wears his influences on his sleeve. There’s a combination John Carpenter-Steven Spielberg vibe rumbling throughout, but it’s also a little sleeker than Carpenter and a little bleaker than Spielberg. While it works as an exploration of the fears associated with parenthood and coming of age as a young child, it is also an incredibly entertaining chase movie. There are so many individual shots, in the opening scenes alone, worth pointing out. One sequence sees buses approach the cult compound as the sun sets. Another sees Lucas put on night vision goggles before shutting off the car’s headlights to avoid nighttime detection. It’s beautiful.

Holding it all together is David Wingo’s synth-heavy score. Fans of Tangerine Dream – who scored great films like Sorcerer and Near Dark – will appreciate it. The main theme evokes urgency in such a way that mere glances between characters are enough to communicate the danger at hand. Nichols’ script, combined with the score and performances, pares down the exposition. He gives doses of explanation in believable scenarios where the dialog makes sense and doesn’t feel like a giant plot-dump.

Its flaws are minor. Thankfully, Midnight Special works through a variety of lenses. Those looking for a thematically rich experience about the nature of being a parent will get what they want. Those looking for a thrilling, science fiction adventure will get that, too. Those looking for both will walk out of one of their favorite movies of the year and it’s only March. Nichols is a writer-director who has backed up the growing excitement around his oeuvre. The accolades are well deserved.

Author rating: 9.5/10

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