The sci-fi thriller Midnight Special may be a slow-burn, but the intrigue it inspires and its visual appeal make it worth a morning, midday or midnight viewing.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud), the film follows Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and his rough-around-the-edges accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as they travel across the Bible Belt with Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in tow.
Early in the story, the audience learns Alton possesses special powers that allow him to emit a blinding white light from his eyes, among other things. He’s a unique child and his precise purpose remains a mystery throughout the film.
The religious cult Alton was raised in, which resides on “the Ranch” and is led by the self-righteous leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who Roy surrendered Alton to years prior, perceives him as a prophet.
The FBI, and NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) in particular, identify him as a weapon and threat to national security, capable of decoding encrypted transmissions. As a result, an Amber Alert has been issued to recover the eight-year-old.
It’s revealed that Roy and Lucas, a former Special Forces officer, kidnapped (read: rescued) Alton from the Ranch and are taking him to his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). As the trio grows into a foursome with Sarah on board, the boy’s supreme abilities are further illustrated and the intensity of the story swells toward the striking final sequence.
The greatest strength of Midnight Special lies in the sublime performances of its actors. Michael worked with Jeff on Take Shelter and proves their chemistry wasn’t a one-time success. His honest, fierce portrayal of a father willing to risk his life for the sake of his son’s is compelling and razor-sharp. Joel, Jaeden and Adam do their respective parts justice, but the other star who shines bright alongside Michael is Kirsten.
Demonstrating a fragility and an impassioned desire to protect her child, Kirsten exhibits range as Sarah that she’s not often given the platform to display in many of her other films.
The mood-setting cinematography of Adam Stone and agitated score of David Wingo deserve mention as well. Both elements complement the uneasy tone established by the writing and acting.
Reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Midnight Special is an eerie, supernatural blend of the commonplace and the bizarre. It provides a tender analysis of the complexities inherent in loving, and perhaps losing, an extraordinary child, and presents an alluring look at an other worldly dimension (perhaps) resting just above our own. It resonates on several levels and like many provocative films, leaves the viewer asking questions rather than feeling content with answers. ~Matthew Pariselli
Origins inspects the central characters of the film, placing Roy, Lucas, Sarah, Alton and (Paul) Sevier under the microscope.
The Unseen World explores the fantastical realm that the film sheds light on, with Jeff Nichols discussing the ’80s sci-fi movies he loved and was inspired by; the influence his son had on the writing of the story; and the architecture and design of the imaginative universe brought to the screen.
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