Midnight Special (2016)

I watched this film twice and I still feel inadequate to write about it. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ story of a father and son on the run packs in a lot of small, quiet moments and somehow it all fits together in this satisfying, grandiose package. After two viewings, I’m still not sure how or why this film works as well as it does.

Father Roy (Michael Shannon) and son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) are on the run. Pursuing them are cult members from a group led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) and the government, including young agent Sevier (Adam Driver). Everyone is interested in Alton because of his strange powers to communicate with satellites. The cult believes Alton will help prepare them for the coming apocalypse, while the government is simply worried about the security risks.

Of course it’s the implication of the child that makes all of this interesting. There’s the obvious religious angle that this child has some sort of divine knowledge that will help the devout survive the apocalypse. And the government sees him as some sort of technological threat to their security. The truth ends up being something else altogether.

The final act is what makes this film. On my first viewing, I thought it came out of nowhere. On my second viewing, there are a lot of clues to signifying what is actually going on. Whether or not you like the film will probably hinge on that final act and, if you’re on the fence, I recommend a rewatch.

Michael Shannon’s performance carries a lot of this film. There’s probably no better actor/director pairing in American cinema right now than Shannon and Nichols. They mirror each other’s sensibilities perfectly. Slow, subdued, and patient, just waiting for the right moment to unleash hell.

Shannon performs against Joel Edgerton who plays Lucas, a friend of Roy’s who helps him in his escape. Edgerton’s performance keeps Shannon’s simmering rage in check. He’s got the experience to know how and when to disappear and lacks Roy’s impulsiveness. And, much like Shannon, Edgerton compliments Nichols’ style excellently, so much so that Nichols goes on to cast him as the male lead of his next film, Loving.

Rounding out the great performances are Kirsten Dunst as Sarah, Alton’s mom, and Adam Driver. Dunst is one of the actresses who is getting better with age and she fits great into the tone of the film. She’s was initially unrecognisable to me because her mannerisms and energy here is vastly different from her previous roles. Likewise, Driver shows a quiet, restrained side that fits into this film perfectly.

There’s no denying that there is something magical about Midnight Special. It’s one of those films you have to see in order to understand what makes it so different and unique. As American cinema becomes more and more bombastic, Midnight Special gives us something simultaneously quiet and grand.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing