I unfortunately didn’t get to see Midnight Special, the new film from writer-director Jeff Nichols, at this year’s SXSW. I was too busy embarrassing myself in front of celebrities (and potentially playing myself the whole time…). But I heard a mixed reaction from the general public on this one. I thought that was an interesting revelation since Nichols has become one of the very best American filmmakers throughout the decade. His last film, Mud, was a flat-out masterpiece, and one of the best films of 2013. Nichols has followed that film with a mysterious and scaled-down science fiction film that looks like its something worth seeing due to the fantastic trailers that Warner Bros. has put out. Speaking of which, this is technically Nichols’ first foray into mainstream filmmaker, as Warner Bros. backed the film. Its interesting, since this is a completely original sci-fi film and Warner Bros. reportedly is now focusing almost exclusively on their franchises now after this less-than-stellar box office performance of Batman v Superman. But that’s another story/argument for another day, let’s just dive into the review of this very impressive film.
The film is a chase film, but don’t expect a high-octane chance like last year’s Fury Road. This one revolves around a father (Michael Shannon) and his son (Jaeden Lieberher) as he takes his kid from a religious cult ranch in San Angelo, Texas (obviously inspired by Warren Jeff’s polygamist ranch, which was south of San Angelo) because his son has these powers that are of another world. Shannon drags his childhood friend (Joel Edgerton) into this chase across state lines, with the federal government getting involved in the chase. We also get introduced to a cast of characters that includes Kirsten Dunst as the mother of the young boy, Sam Shepard as the leader of this cult, and Adam Driver as an NSA specialist that’s assisting the government in looking for the father and his boy.
The film has been getting comparisons to the Steven Spielberg films of yesteryear (Close Encounters primarily) and an old John Carpenter film called Starman. What made those films stand out from others at the time was they were very story and character-oriented, and didn’t rely on flashy special effects to tell its story and dazzle its audience, but had a journey that a set of characters went on that made the story all worth while. Its this idea that J.J. Abrams tried (and ultimately failed) with Super 8 a few years back. But Nichols has nailed the formula perfectly with this film, and ultimately made the kind of film Abrams couldn’t. I can understand how some people were mixed about the film at SXSW, and I’m almost certain that the reception from the general audience is pretty mixed as well. But for that group of people who know and love Nichols as a filmmaker, and understands what he’s trying to do with this film, I think you’re going to be very, very satisfied with the final product.
First things first, all of the performances from the cast are fantastic. Nichols knows how to cast, and this film is no different from his previous works in that ballpark. Shannon, whose been in every one of Nichols’ films up to this point, is fantastic as always as the father who believes his son has a special gift the rest of the world doesn’t quite understand. Kirsten Dunst does some of her best film work as the mother of the boy, and Sam Shepard is great as always in his brief role as the pastor. Adam Driver does some fine work here as the slightly weasly NSA agent, but the standout performer in this film is Joel Edgerton as Shannon’s friend who vows to help our protagonists in every way he can. I’ve really become fond of Edgerton as an actor in the past couple of years, and this is one of the best performances I’ve seen him in to date. Luckily, Nichols has cast Edgerton as the lead in his next film, Loving, which is coming out later this year and sounds fantastic.
Midnight Special is also a marvel just to look at visually, and that’s thanks in part to the collaboration between Nichols and his longtime cinematographer Adam Stone, who shoots the film just as exquisitely as he shot Mud. He’s able to shoot his films where the sun really pops out during the day time, but gets a great sense of the dark and claustrophobic nature of nighttime in the South. Mud looked beautiful, and this film looks even better than that one. Hopefully the Academy will be able to remember Stone’s beautiful work on this film, since its doubtful they’ll remember any of the other great things about Midnight Special.
I also really liked the chase aspect of this film, and how Nichols stuck to his guns and his unique style without giving in and making this film feel like just another studio release. His direction, and reliance on character to guide this story is what makes a lot of his films incredibly memorable and unique from all the others. The film not only has shades of Spielberg, but I also got an early Coen Brothers vibe with portions of the film, with the two church members going after our protagonists, without the help of the FBI. Maybe I got that vibe since the film was set in Texas and the Deep South, similar to Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men.
I believe this was the weekend where Midnight Special expanded to more theaters, so if its playing in your area, and you want to see a science fiction film that isn’t loud and bombastic but small and subtle, then Midnight Special is definitely the film for you. You might be turned off a bit by the ending (which I really admired), but I think you’re gonna appreciate the film as a whole for what it is if this kind of film is your thing. But what’s even greater is that we get Loving, Nichols’ next film that I mentioned earlier coming out later this year, and it just sounds magnificent. I’d go as far to predict that Loving could potentially end up being my favorite film of 2016, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see on that one.