‘Midnight Special’ is not an easy movie to review. Like ’10 Cloverfield Lane’, the best way to approach this movie is with as little foreknowledge as possible. I will keep plot descriptions to a minimum, and won’t get into any reveals or spoilers. I certainly won’t take offence if you get a ticket to ‘Midnight Special’ and read this review after seeing the movie – you won’t be sorry you saw it.
In an age of sequels, reboots, and shared universes, it is just thrilling to see a self-contained motion picture traverse multiple genres seamlessly as it wears its cinematic influences proudly on its sleeve. ‘Midnight Special’ is a bravura sci-fi thriller, a taut fugitive-on-the-run picture, and a beautiful film about faith and fatherhood.
An Amber alert sets this plot in motion. An 8-year-old boy, Alton (Jaden Lieberher), has been kidnapped. And just like that, without any exposition, the film opens with a set piece. We see a beat-up Chevy racing down an empty country road. The driver of this car is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy (Michael Shannon) is in the passenger seat, and Alton is in the backseat wearing his protective goggles. I felt I had entered the picture during the film’s second act. Three minutes into ‘Midnight Special’ and we are already deep into this story.
We learn that there is a cult who believes that Alton is their saviour (the invaluable Sam Shepard is the cult’s leader, and Kirsten Dunst is a former cult member). The government sees Alton as a weapon and they attribute electrical disturbances and disruptions in satellite communications to the boy (Adam Driver, excellent, is the NSA specialist who tracks Alton’s course).
Something big and mysterious is going on. What that something is I cannot say. You’ll have to discover it for yourself. What I can say is that the tone is incredible: the movie is tense from the very beginning. You may think you know where it is going, but it keeps changing and surprising you, and, most importantly, it trusts that you are intelligent enough to keep up with it.
This is director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature (he also directed ‘Shotgun Stories’, ‘Take Shelter’, and ‘Mud’) and his first studio production, backed by Warner Brothers. This is an example of what I call the “independent” studio film – Warner Brothers gave Mr. Nichols complete artistic control of the project, letting him have the final cut with zero studio interference. This model makes sense to me – why hire gifted filmmakers and tell them what they should do?
Mr. Nichols was raised in the American South and all of his movies feature working-class people in rural America. Here, as in his previous work, there is a vivid sense of place. No easy feat given that the movie’s characters are constantly on the move from one location to another and the events surrounding them are increasingly fantastical.
In terms of filmmaking, ‘Midnight Special’ feels like a John Carpenter movie, from the ominous electro score by David Wingo to the empty visual spaces in interior and exterior shots (empty highway roads, empty landscapes, empty interrogation rooms). Thematically, the film’s biggest influence is Steven Spielberg (specifically ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, and ‘E.T’). Still, Mr. Nichols is no cover artist – this is a very much a product of its own distinctive vehemence.
Adam Stone’s cinematography is beautiful – the scenes set in dark settings are surprisingly easy to follow; we know where all the characters are, and what they’re doing (even if we’re not sure why they’re doing it). Julie Monroe’s editing is razor-sharp; there was a moment in this movie where I almost jumped out of my seat in surprise and a lot of it had to do with how that scene was cut.
Michael Shannon has been in all four of Jeff Nichols’ films thus far. He brings the sort of off-centeredness to the role that he is known for at this point. But, Mr. Nichols always casts him as an everyman caught in extraordinary circumstances and this is a terrifically understated performance. Edgerton is equally impressive delivering a very believable Texas accent.
I’d be lying if I said ‘Midnight Special’ is going to appeal to the masses. Mr. Nichols may not answer every single question you have, but he isn’t going to leave you without a resolution. There is a literalism to what happens in the third act that some viewers may wish had remain unseen. Some viewers may not like how ‘Midnight Special’ isn’t in sync with what they have come to expect from studio sci-fi pictures – after all, this is a movie that resides in the same genre as the elegantly titled ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’.
Okay, ‘Midnight Special’ isn’t a very good title and we don’t hear the Creedence Clearwater Revival song it is named after until the end credits (or more accurately, a slowed down cover of it), but that is just one minor quibble in an otherwise engrossing piece of moviemaking. The ideal double bill for this would be to pair it with Alex Proyas’ wildly misunderstood ‘Knowing’ from 2009. QED.