Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher,Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks
The early buzz on this film was that it was getting compared to such Spielberg classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s coming from the mind of writer and director Jeff Nichols which equates to even more hype. He’s an indie director whose previous credits include Mud, Take Shelter, and Shotgun Stories. There is a unique quality to his films, so this early buzz holds such promise. An amber alert is sent out when eight-year-old Alton Meyer (Lieberher) goes missing. The kidnapper just happens to be his father, Roy, played by frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon. The media outlets have released Roy’s image but are unaware that his friend, Lucas (Edgerton), is also involved. The FBI’s manhunt throughout Texas takes them to a religious cult whose leader (Shepard) has been spouting sermons that have classified government info coded in them. When a government official (Driver) starts interviewing members of the cult, he is given an eye-opening realization into their belief system and how the boy plays into it. They believe he has special powers and will be part of Judgment Day. It becomes all too clear that Roy and Lucas are not the villains that they are portrayed to be, but rather a father doing what he can to save and protect his son.
Midnight Special is one of those unique films where good buzz will hopefully lead to big word of mouth from audiences. It has a small distribution and will only open at two Minnesota theaters, Showplace Icon in St. Louis Park and AMC Southdale in Edina. It deserves much more than that and hopefully moviegoers agree. The minimal budget on marketing probably helps as I went into it with very little knowledge of what to expect. That level of secrecy helps keep the film within the world of the unknown. It’s dark, mysterious, and intriguing every step of the way through.
Nichols keeps the film very much in the present. Take the beginning for example. At first you think it’s about a boy being kidnapped by crazy Michael Shannon. He can easily play characters that are off their rocker, so you believe that to be true. The boy seems oddly calm reading his comics book while wearing goggles and earmuffs. He could be dressing as his version of a superhero, so the accessories don’t seem too far out of place. It’s only after a little while that you learn that Shannon’s character is Alton’s father. The story continues to take such interesting turns as their getaway continues. Their future stops and visitors, including Alton’s mom Sarah (Dunst), all have their own knowledge of the situation. When the story starts to include a crazy religious cult and then the supernatural, you realize that anything is possible with this film and it could go in any direction.
Nichols keeps his dialogue short and the answers come few and far between like little clues being left for a larger puzzle. Yes, you can draw some parallels to Spielberg, but it also felt a little reminiscent of The X-Files with the audience being the detectives in figuring out if this little boy is an alien, if he has special powers, how he fit into the cult’s belief system, and which characters along the way you can trust. Many people like Roy or Sarah themselves don’t know what’s going on with their own son, which leaves the audience in the same predicament. It makes a film all the more unique these days when you can’t see the finale coming a mile away.
That’s precisely why I like films like this. I’ve seen countless movies where the writers or directors beat you over the head to force emotion. Sometimes the dialogue is so heavy handed to over explain the plot, as they want to make sure you understand everything to the point where the mystery and allure is gone. Audiences have also gotten to that point where they want clear answers and an ending that wraps it all up with a nice bow. I don’t believe that sci-fi/fantasy films need that bow to be enjoyable. The ending to Midnight Special is a bit ambiguous and will no doubt spark conversation if you see it will someone. I’d rather have a movie leave me with a few unanswered questions to take back with me on the drive home than one that I will forget about the very next day.
Go into Jeff Nichols’ story with an open mind and know that it takes you on a fascinating journey. Yes, there is a little boy believed to be an alien that has light beaming from his eyes. Yes, there are members of a religious cult living on a ranch. Yes, pieces of a satellite drop from the sky. There are elements that cannot be explained, but Nichols has one hell of a cast with Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver. All four of them have done impressive work over the past few years and can easily add this film to that list. As Alton, Jaeden Lieberher, who also appeared in St. Vincent, will surely be a child star on the rise. Midnight Special will be one of those gamble films where you may hesitant to see it, but you’ll come out glad that you saw it. I know that I want to experience it all over again.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Easily one of the best of the year, and yes, it does live up to its title.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS