Midnight Special is truly something special.
Midnight Special feels like director Jeff Nichols’ throwback to science fiction films from the 80s. Nichols has already excelled in other genres of film, but Midnight Special marks his first foray into science fiction. Nichols has stated that he was heavily influenced by John Carpenter, and I think that comparison rings true. The final product results in a slow burn of a science fiction film, one that can be frustratingly vague at times but dripping with atmosphere, heart, and soul.
Midnight Special focuses on Roy (Michael Shannon), whose son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher)develops strange and unexplained powers. Roy then proceeds to try and protect his son at all costs from the government agencies who have taken an interest in the boy, as well as a mysterious cult-like ranch that has begun worshiping Alton’s gifts. What follows is a film about a father and his son on the run, and what that father will do to protect what he loves.
It’s rare for a completely original science fiction film to see the light of day in the current movie industry. Midnight Special is a smart and subtle film that does not compromise its genre whatsoever. It acts as a pure science fiction film that is uninterested in any attempts at making the film “accessible”. The strengths of Midnight Special lie in its refusal to spoonfeed explanations to the audience. That might sound strange, but the fact that the film never stops to spout exposition about what exactly is going on really adds to the tension and atmosphere of the film.
The film begins in media res, with Roy, Alton, and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) already on the run. The questions of from who, what, or why are not immediately or inorganically answered for the audience. Instead, the various workings and layers of the world are slowly revealed to the audience naturally through the certain circumstances that the characters find themselves in. The plot of the film almost acts as a mystery that is slowly unraveled without being completely resolved. I don’t wanna give away too much, this is one you should go in blind to, but you’ll see what I mean once you watch the film.
The core driver of the film is the relationship between Roy and Alton. There is genuinely bittersweet dynamic between Roy and his son. Roy so desperately will do anything to help Alton, but at the same time it can be felt that Roy fears what is betiding to his son. This conflict is portrayed beautifully by Michael Shannon (a Nichols regular), who embodies this determinedness and apprehension of Roy. Shannon unsurprisingly gives an exceptional performance as Roy, in part due to Nichols’ directing.
Along with Shannon, the rest of the cast give equally great performances. Most noteworthy is Jaeden Lieberher who gives a mesmerizing performance as Alton, especially for a child actor. It would have been easy for Alton to become annoying or unconvincing, but thanks to Lieberher’s stellar performance you remain completely invested. Joel Edgerton as Lucas and Kirsten Dunst as Roy’s wife Sarah are both really solid, as well as Adam Driver’s performance as the quirky NSA agent Sevier.
Nichols is masterful at building tension throughout Midnight Special. Throughout the large majority of the film I found myself on the edge of my seat. This tension is enhanced by the jaw-droppingly fantastic score the film possesses. In similar company with the likes of Drive and It Follows, the minimalistic and synth-heavy score add so much to the film as a whole, contributing to the overall tension and atmosphere. The score is beautiful and intense and is one I could listen to outside of the film.
Midnight Special is definitely a slow burn kind of film. It’s slow and thoughtful, taking it’s time to move from plot point to plot point. The film lives and breathes in the mood and atmosphere it creates, and Nichols‘ ability to keep this low key thriller engaging is definitely felt while watching it. There are some pacing issues in the film, however. For the most part, this methodical approach to the story works, but there were a few portions of the film where I felt it would have benefited from a slightly faster pace. Besides that, the film is paced well and I was captivated throughout.
The ending of this film will definitely be a divisive one. There are a large number of mysteries presented throughout Midnight Special and not many of them are undeniably resolved. The film leaves many hints and implications about what exactly occurs, but it is never out right stated. I consider this both a positive and negative aspect of the film. On one hand, slightly more explanation to what exactly Alton’s powers are would have been nice, but I also appreciate the fact that much of the film is left up to interpretation. Even as I write this review I find myself continually pondering what I watched last night, and my understanding of the film is constantly evolving. This is a film that will definitely benefit from a rewatch, and I gladly look forward to doing so.
Thrilling at times, heartfelt at times, Midnight Special is a satisfying science fiction thriller that asks more questions that it answers, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.