Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher
Runtime: 1 hr 52 mins
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: Warner Bros
Official Website: http://www.midnightspecialmovie.com
Opening Day: 21 April 2016
Synopsis: A father (Michael Shannon) goes on the run to protect his young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), and uncover the truth behind the boy’s special powers. What starts as a race from religious extremists and local law enforcement quickly escalates to a nationwide manhunt involving the highest levels of the Federal Government. Ultimately his father risks everything to protect Alton and help fulfill a destiny that could change the world forever, in this genre – defying film as supernatural as it is intimately human.
The less you know about ‘Midnight Special’, the better. Like a layered mystery, writer-director Jeff Nichols unveils his tale of a boy with supernatural powers slowly, delighting along the way in confounding his audience’s tendency to pigeonhole his movie into any particular genre. And so, as much as it may be tempting to reduce this to a sci-fi chase movie, somewhere within is in fact a road movie, a father-son drama and even a cautionary tale about the powers-that-be, carefully calibrated and confidently directed by a filmmaker who is best known for his taut humane dramas like ‘Mud’ and ‘Take Shelter’ and who takes his craft to a whole different level here.
Setting the plot in motion are TV news reports of an Amber Alert about the abduction of an 8-year-old named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), with a certain Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) identified as the kidnapper. These reports come from a TV in a motel room, where Alton is holed up hiding beneath a sheet and wearing shooting earmuffs and swimming goggles. Roy is there in the same room, together with a clearly subordinate Lucas (Joel Edgerton), but instead of quivering with fear, Alton seems to take comfort from Roy. In fact, as the three make their way down moonlit Texas backroads in an ancient Chevy shortly, we soon realise that Roy is Alton’s birth father and that he and Lucas are on the run for Alton’s own protection.
It doesn’t take long before we find out that Alton is far from an ordinary boy and that the real danger he faces is from a fundamentalist religious cult called the Third Heaven Ranch led by the stony-faced Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Calvin believes that the boy he forcibly adopted is their Messiah – in particular, that the numbers Alton keeps repeating are the co-ordinates and date for an end-of-days event that will save them all. Unbeknownst to them, these numbers also happen to be classified military information, which explains why Alton is simultaneously pursued by the Government – and it doesn’t help that Alton demonstrates that he is able to telepathically pull a satellite out of orbit from space down to Earth, sending its smashed fragments scattering across a rural Louisiana gas station.
There is a rich metaphor here about how different groups interpret something extraordinary and therefore outside their normal realm of understanding, but Nichols doesn’t quite take it far enough for it to be truly meaningful. Instead, Roy and Lucas are joined midway through the film by Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) – whom we learn is in fact Alton’s mother – and the trio continue the cat-and-mouse game with both the authorities as well as a pair of hit men (Bill Camp and Scott Haze) sent by Calvin to retrieve the boy back to the Ranch. It is a somewhat disappointing turn of events to be honest, mainly because it takes the movie down a much more conventional path than what the setup had suggested, right down to the final revelation of just who Alton is and who he has been waiting for all this while.
But even if the last act is a little too literal, it is never less than engaging to watch thanks to some powerfully acted human drama. The emotional anchor here is the strong bond between father and son, led by Shannon and Lieberher’s committed performances. The former, who has appeared in every one of Nichols’ films, conveys quiet strength and heartfelt anxiety in equal measure; while the latter balances innocence, wisdom, vulnerability and enigma in wonderfully low-key fashion. Dunst’s entry in the middle act adds an unexpected tenderness, the actress’ stripped down performance in itself endearingly plain and tender. And though Edgerton and Driver are pretty much complementary to the central relationship with Alton and his family, the actors are solid supporting acts.
Like we said at the start, the best way to appreciate ‘Midnight Special’ is to know as little about it as you can and let it surprise you along the way. It isn’t some ground-breaking genre exercise if that’s what you’re expecting, but there is something deeply enthralling about Nichols’ blend of science, religion and politics that will keep you hooked. And oh if you’re waiting for that classic Credence Clearwater Revival song, just know that Nichols has most appropriately saved that little special for right at the end.
(Anchored by stellar performances and a strong central relationship between a father and his extraordinary son, Jeff Nichols' latest is an intriguing sci-fi delight)
Review by Gabriel Chong