Director: Jeff Nichols
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2
Two men have a child with them who wears goggles for reasons unknown. The 8-year old clutches a comic book in the Jack Kirby vein as one of the men carries him outside the hotel room to their ’72 Chevelle and blasts off into the dark. Where they are going is a mystery but someone is catching up quick. In a year essentially made of sequels, spinoffs or reboots Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is a breath of fresh air even when it isn’t perfect. Mystery and masterful tension trump visual effects wizardry any day and Midnight Special is chock-full of both.
The film comes after Nichols’ 2011 and 2012 critical darlings Take Shelter and Mud, the former starring Midnight Special lead Michael Shannon. Lately Shannon has built his career on playing men just trying to do the right thing even if it is misguided, from Take Shelter to Man of Steel. There is a smidgen of villainy in his performance here as he pushes both himself and his 8-year old charge to the breaking point in a chase film that is at times Malick’s Badlands and also very often brings to mind No Country For Old Men sans that Roger Deakins shine.
That Coen bros. film’s influence extends to the supporting characters, especially a pair of cultish devotees (Scott Haze and Billy Camp) charged with reclaiming Alton for their church’s purposes. A tense skirmish inside a hotel room bears the slow-burn terror of being hunted by those you cannot see. What’s different is these two aren’t professional assassins and they let you know it too. They know about as much as the people they are hunting.
The mystery surrounding Alton is fascinating, not for where it eventually leads but for many of the answers that never come.
There are a few select gorgeous moments from cinematographer Adam Stone, who has lensed every Nichols film. The opening sequence is an eye-opener set against the Texas dusk and the alarmingly sudden gas station scene is fantastic. The film is certainly funnier than either of Nichols’ last two films. Much of that humor comes in the conversations between Shannon’s Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) or the interactions between the myserious child Alton and Adam Driver’s FBI consultant Paul Sevier.
The Australian Edgerton continues to showcase his acting chops, sporting an unwavering American accent in this film and bringing a sad willingness to go along with Roy’s plan no matter the cost. You might have to suspend your disbelief when he becomes a believer in the supernatural later on but besides that Edgerton is great. “Can we go back to Texas now?” Driver’s turn as Paul Sevier is a different side of the actor than the dork in Girls or the villainous Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. Sevier is calculating but not cold, persistent in his mission to find Alton but for noble reasons. He’s Anton Chigurh with a heart and finds one of the film`s funnier moments in a pair of handcuffs.
Jaeden Lieberher is a positive marvel as the child Alton. I haven’t seen St. Vincent so I know not how good he is in that film but in Midnight Special there is a gravitational pull about him that is insane. You can’t take your eyes from him in any scene and there is never a point where it isn’t apparent that he is the smartest person in the room. The mystery surrounding Alton is fascinating, not for where it eventually leads but for many of the answers that never come. If you like your movies tied up with a bow at the end you’ll walk away with certain disappointment here. But if you’re looking for something fresh this year Midnight Special is very much up your alley.