Film Review: Midnight Special (USA, 2016)

From Writer and Director Jeff Nichols, an emerging American auteur who has already slammed two home runs with the brilliant Take Shelter (2011) and the film which arguably reignited Matthew McConoughey’s career, Mud (2012), comes his most ambitious film to date – Midnight Special, which opens in Australian cinemas today.

In Midnight Special – which re-unites Nichols with Michael Shannon, who starred in Take Shelter – Nichols brings us a film that walks a tight-rope between a number of genres. Though its sci-fi tag is going to be the genre that most will identify with – and is certainly how they’re selling the film – at its heart, this is part family drama (admitedly bizarro family drama), part road movie, and part thriller.

From his opening notes, Nichols throws us in the deep end as a man we know only as Roy (Shannon) is on the run with a boy, Alton Meyer (the remarkable young actor Jaeden Lieberher, who made his mark with the Bill Murray fronted film St. Vincent), who the news report as kidnapped by Roy, accompanied by Lucas (Australia’s Joel Edgerton, who follows up his own The Gift with another Indie gem) and later Sarah Tomlin (Kirsten Dunst, an actress who has found a resurgence in roles in the last couple of years).

Not much is known about the boy, nor his relationship to the people around him, but we know a Cult is after him, as are the authorities. Sitting in the corner of a hotel room with ear muffs and goggles covering his eyes, there are indications that this is the kidnapping that was reported – but of course, there’s a lot more to the story than meets the eye. And as the boy’s powers are revealed and the details of the saga are slowly but cleverly unveiled, we’re taken on a thrilling ride that doesn’t let up until its final notes, led by a spectacular score from David Wingo and outstanding cinematography by Adam Stone – both of whom collaborated with Nichols on his last two feature films. Meanwhile, the performances from all our major players – as well as Adam Driver, who is working with the Government to locate the boy and serves as a strong presence in the film – are outstanding. It’s fair to say this film was perfectly cast.

As a fan of the works of science fiction author Ursula Le Guin, I’ve always been fascinated by sci-fi works which are stemmed in modern reality. No dramatic fight scenes with thousands of space ships in space – it’s just a story about people that happens to take place on a different world, or in the case of this film, with a character who has unusual powers. Moon is another film that is among my highlights of the genre from the last decade for this very reason. And in Midnight Special I have found another – a family drama meets road movie that just happens to have elements of a sci-fi.

From a technical stand-point, it’s hard to fault the film. Thematically, some may find the film too melo-dramatic, especially towards the end, but this will come down to personal taste. I felt Nichol’s balanced the story well – though he was admittedly walking a tightrope as he led his actors, as does any Director producing a film that at least partly parades itself as a family drama. If I was to single out one thing, without giving anything away, there was part of me that didn’t want to see the ending I saw. Not that it was unsatisfying by any means, but it gave too much away. As JJ Abrams might say, sometimes it’s better to keep the mystery box closed. Though don’t worry, there isn’t some Contact climactic moment you need to dread; this is but a minor criticism of what is otherwise a powerful and remarkable film.

Midnight Special is the example of a near perfect sci-fi film, set against the backdrop of our modern world. It’s as enjoyable as any of the recent critically acclaimed films that fit in a similar spectrum – such as the brilliant Ex-Machina or the aforementioned Moon – and is as technically sound. Nichol’s Direction continues his run of solid Indie films (and it’s great to see what he can do with a comparatively decent budget and a couple of years up his sleeve), while the respective music and cinematography from his collaborators Stone and Wingo, not to mention the excellent script and acting that accompanies the piece, truly makes it one of the must-see films of 2016.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Midnight Special is in Australian cinemas from today.