Following on from his first three projects, the acclaimed Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, director Jeff Nichols is back with his fourth feature, taking a dip into the waters of the science-fiction genre, with Midnight Special. Here's my review of Nichols' latest.

The film opens in a hotel room, with the news reporting that a young boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), has been abducted. In this hotel room is Alton, alongside the supposed "kidnappers", the intense-looking Roy (Michael Shannon) and his "partner in crime" Lucas (Joel Egerton). However, as we soon find out, Roy is actually Alton's father and the pair are on the run - alongside Alton's mother Sarah (Kristen Dunst) and Roy's friend, the aforementioned Lucas. Alton is a gifted child with special abilities - able to intercept and decode heavily encrypted messages from space - and, in pursuit of him, each for their own reasons, are the police and the FBI - with particular interest in Alton's abilities from NSA Agent Seiver (Adam Driver) - who believe the boy is a threat, and a religious cult from what is known as "The Ranch", led by Sam Shepard's Calvin Meyer, who worship him and see him as a god-like saviour/prophet. Wanting to protect his son, Roy enlists Lucas to guide them across the country to a place which will fulfil Alton's destiny but for reasons only the boy himself understands.

I am a big fan of Nichols' work and the director knows how to create very accomplished, fulfilling pictures and Midnight Special is no different. Despite being a sci-fi film, this is a very grounded, enriching story about characters at its heart, one that feels so very real, despite its superficial nature. This is an emotionally rich film and one that is grounded by its humanity and it's authenticity. It's a very surreal film yet, at the same time, it's so chillingly real - a profound chronicle of a tender relationship between a father and his son, an intimate, nuanced study of these characters and this family and their naturalistic relationship. Nichols, who also wrote as well as directed, has written such a genuine, dramatic and emotional story with such riveting and grounded characters and ideals, complete with lots of metaphors for the real world. It has been written with such care, each character so fully realised and developed and genuine as a result. Yet, this film bursts with creativity. Nichols' writing is ingenious and energetic and his imagination is limitless, making for such a captivating and transfixing genre piece and one that is original and unique too.

The acting in this film is truly outstanding. Michael Shannon, who reunites with Nichols for the fourth time (having starred in all of his films thus far), is remarkable. His performance is so nuanced and intense and Shannon brings some real emotional depth to the character, continuing to impress every time he works with this director, giving one of the more reserved, but equally incredible, performances of his career. Jaeden Lieberher is also great, giving a very innocent yet sublime performance as Alton and his chemistry with Shannon is exceptional; you really believe their heartfelt relationship and you really empathise for them, you really empathise for what Alton is going through. Joel Egerton and Kristen Dunst give some necessary support too, with the former as terrific as always; the latter, really showing off her talent and giving the best performance of her career yet - as a torn mother. Sam Shepard is great too, as is Adam Driver. All the acting in this film is terrific, as are the characters though - each and every one so meticulously written and developed; we understand and relate with everyone here, albeit for different reasons.
However, characterisation isn't the only thing that builds and builds within this film, as the tension does too. Nichols is a master craftsmanship and his direction is some of the best out there; he orchestrates the tension and the suspense so brilliantly here, really creating an unsettling and mysterious atmosphere that will absorb you and demand your attention. However, this is a science-fiction film and, akin to most classics, there is a sense of wonder and enchantment to the ambiguity. Midnight Special is an adventure and the supernatural activity is always so fascinating, intertwining with the characterisation and the humanity of this film to create a really dark and wondrous sci-fi thriller that feels so hauntingly real, as Nichols entices us and engrosses us from start to finish. Inspiration was clearly taken from Spielberg's E.T and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with obvious nods to those classics, but this film also captures the spirit of adventure and is as inspired and mystical as those films too, managing to really capture the beauty of this genre.

Where most filmmakers opt for bombarding us with exposition and setup, Nichols manages to create a real sense of mystery and ambiguity in the premise - something that is lost in modern sci-fi flicks - right from the off-set. We don't know anything about Alton's abilities nor do we need to know; instead, Nichols leaves us a trail of breadcrumbs to pick up on which effectively explains everything that we need to know (emphasis on need; only giving us the essentials) without shoving it down our throats or having to spoon-feed the audience. The beauty of mystery is that it leaves things open to interpretation and to our imagination and the unknown can be a beautiful gift that makes cinema all the more impactful, with some films warranting lack of closure or questions left unanswered, with Midnight Special being an example, but Nichols slips up in the final act by, perhaps, giving us a little too much and taking away from the magic of the ambiguity by revealing more than is necessary, and in a very messy, and a little lacklustre, manner too. It's my only complaint with this film, making the destination of this glorious journey that little bit less satisfying and wondrous.

Nonetheless, it can't take away from the fact that Midnight Special is truly magnificent. This is a mesmerising picture that is wholly unique and ingenious, bursting with creativity and energy, but also nuance and authenticity. Jeff Nichols has written a story that is timeless and inspired; Midnight Special is fantastical and enchanting but it is also rich in emotion and heart too. This is a film that is stunning, in every way possibly - from the gorgeous, beautiful visuals to the ingenious premise to the superb acting to David Wingo's magical, rousing score that is a part of the story and the tone of the film itself. The film flows effortlessly and it's breathtaking to watch, from the very first scene. This is a story that is intense, dark and thrilling but one that is as equally as grounded and profound as it is surreal and fantastical. Midnight Special is a hauntingly beautiful breath of fresh air that is full of life and wonder, from an artist and filmmaker that is unparalleled and at the top of his game - a visionary storyteller, able to paint such a resonating and spectacular work of art. It just falls short of being a true masterpiece.

Jeff Nichols has created a timeless and resonating sci-fi thriller with the hauntingly beautiful, superbly ingenious and breathtakingly mesmerising Midnight Special - a stunning piece of cinema unlike anything you've ever seen.

Tagged as

About the Author

Awais Irfan
Founder of Oasis Awais, and avid lover of life, Awais Irfan's love of writing and film is unequivocal. Ever since he was a little kid, he has loved the cinematic experience; so much so, he is studying Film Production in Glasgow and hopes to be the next "big thing" in directing.

Related Posts