Hands up who is frustrated by the current state of cinema? Most of you? Between films that are essentially Celebrity Death Match on a bigger budget and those films that seem to jump up and down around awards seasons screaming “pick me, pick me” it can get tiresome. But it’s a relief to know that there are still original filmmakers interested in telling a solid story without relying on POW, BANG, CRUNCH to get bums on seats.
Said filmmaker of Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols and with the likes of Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories has done well to make a name for himself outside of the studio system. Midnight Special changes that but thankfully Nichols has managed to up the budget, fractionally, without losing any sense of intricate, immersive and character driven storytelling.
The characters in question are Roy (Michael Shannon), his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) who are all escorting Roy and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) across country. Hot on their trail are a collection of government agencies and a cult desperate to get their hands on Alton. Because Alton possesses powers beyond those of a normal young boy. Some think he’s a weapon, others a saviour of mankind but our trio of heroes just want to see him safe.
Midnight Special is a hugely rewarding throwback of a film. Influenced heavily by the films of John Carpenter, and even early Spielberg, TV shows like The Twilight Zone and a healthy dollop of sci-fi author John Wyndham. It keeps you guessing as to Alton’s true nature and what all those pursuing really want him for, but it never loses sight of the beating heart at its centre.
Because this is Nichols’ affectionate and often heartbreaking ode to parenting. The fear that the world is too big, dangerous and terrifying for a parent to dare expose them to the realities of it. Alton is, as with most cinematic children, wise beyond his years. There’s good reason for that here but it’s his fragility that touches while Roy’s protective nature is achingly beautiful to witness. While Alton might be powerful Roy treats him as if he could break at any moment, the world filled with dangers and horrors, Alton included, that could bring an end to this desperate father and son. In one set-piece Roy watches in horror as the sky literally looks to fall on them.
Nichols keeps the first half of the film seeped in brooding darkness before throwing open the shades to let the sun shine. The pacing is perfect, never rushing to reveal its secrets but content to let you revel in the delicate relationships on offer. What Nichols has done is essentially take the first act of most big budget genre movies and tell it in glorious detail in a full film. Remember the best part of Rian Johnson’s Looper? The chemistry between Emily Blunt and her terrifyingly powerful, yet too young to understand the danger he can unfurl, son? It’s that, without the time hopping assassins. A simple, intelligent and wonderfully powerful story.
Edgerton is typically reliable. His Lucas is the tough guy who slowly melts into the family dynamic. Lieberher, who is marking himself out as one of the go-to young actors of the moment after this and his turn in St. Vincent, is brilliantly understated. His character is the central conceit of the film but his presence is larger than life while the performance is delicate. Dunst continues her slow rise back to her A-game after her turn in Fargo by bringing a nurturing yet terrified air to her role. Adam Driver, as one of aforementioned government spooks, meanwhile is wonderfully engaging, all awkward mannerisms, there’s a sense of geeky wonder that, like us, taps into the X-Files sense of discovery the film has to offer. But it is Shannon who, as is now on trend from a Nichols film, steals the show. Unlike his turn in Man Of Steel Shannon is always on song when he’s playing the strong silent type as opposed to the shouty villain. His Roy is a perfect avatar for Nichols’ brooding, man-on-a-mission, father who will stop at nothing to do right by his son.
Midnight Special is the best kind of genre movie there is. It’s not the superhero movie we deserve, it’s the superhero movie we needed, badly.