A father and his friend drive through the night, with an 8-year-old boy in the back seat. They are on the run, but we don’t know why just yet, as the sci-fi thriller “Midnight Special” opens. Then the young man reveals some otherworldly qualities. Whoa! And we’re off on an urgent, intense journey.
That sets the tone for writer-director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature film, as he plops us smack-dab into a manhunt without a back story. It doesn’t detract, but rivets instead. A sharp storyteller, Nichols’ cast a first-rate ensemble that brings depth to these interesting characters.
A religious cult, believing that Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is their savior, is chasing after dad Roy (Michael Shannon) to bring the boy back at all costs. Serious government agents are also in pursuit, seeking answers for unexplained occurrences and national security breaches.
After “Take Shelter” in 2011 and “Mud” in 2012, Nichols emerged as a filmmaker with an original voice, for he crafted movies with a rich atmosphere in rural America and such compelling characters.
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Acclaimed Chicago stage actor Michael Shannon (“Man of Steel”) broke through in movies with an Oscar nomination for “Revolutionary Road” in 2009, and has played a number of unhinged characters in movies ever since. “Midnight Special” allows him to show a tender side. He plays a devoted father who will do whatever it takes to protect his child, but also to see that his destiny is fulfilled.
As Roy, he gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, and your heart breaks along with his when he tells Alton he likes worrying about him. Shannon shares a history with the director. He has been in all of Nichols’ films, and they are indeed a dynamic duo, bringing out the best in each other.
Joel Edgerton (“The Gift”) is also noteworthy as Roy’s old pal Lucas, who believes in a larger force at work. Adam Driver (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) is strong as Paul Sevier, a solemn NSA investigator who understands the case’s broader scope.
Kirsten Dunst (“Fargo”), as Roy’s estranged wife Sarah, and Sam Shepard (“Mud”), as the cult leader Calvin, are solid in small supporting roles.
As the central figure, Jaeden Lieberher (“St. Vincent”) has a delicate, innocent countenance and projects a preternatural wisdom, which makes the supernatural aspect plausible.
Working with a much larger studio budget, Nichols adds necessary visual effects that enhance the drama without overpowering it. The human emotions that give the story its heart remain in the forefront.
What Doesn’t Work
While Nichols builds tension effectively, the film’s ending isn’t as satisfactory as it could have been. However, the shock and awe that this film projects is enough to make it a must-see.
If you are a fan of such sci-fi classics as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Starman,” this film will remind you of those experiences. And that’s a good thing.
- Director: Jeff Nichols
- Cast: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst and Sam Shepard.
- Rated PG-13 (some violence and action)
- 112 minutes