‘Midnight Special’ is a Stunning Sci-Fi Journey That Works on Every Level

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With films like Mud and Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols made a name for himself by telling compelling stories of outsiders, focusing on the human relationships between the characters amidst the dramatic circumstances of their stories. An ascending talent, Nichols makes the logical step forward with Midnight Special, a sci-fi film that taps upon themes of religion and politics while crafting a compelling narrative. Midnight Special is a thriller that works on the most basic levels of suspense and tension, and works as high-minded science fiction story willing to ask larger questions about religion and society. Once again, Jeff Nichols is proving that his talent is undeniable with one of the year’s best movies so far.

The movie opens with Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) stowed away in a hotel room, windows lined with cardboard presumably to keep out peering eyes. Roy’s face is gracing the television screen as part of an Amber Alert for Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Roy’s son. They’re equipped for a long run, with police scanners and night vision goggles to help them evade the authorities. Meanwhile, at a secluded ranch is a religious cult that have their sermons, led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), held solely at night, the FBI raid the compound with a series of questions for the members of this congregation. The members of this cult are interrogated by the FBI Agent Miller (Paul Sparks) and NSA Agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), the latter wondering why this backwards cult has decrypted highly classified information. Soon, the feds and members of the cult are on the search for Alton as Roy and Lucas try their best to avoid those on their tail, taking up shelter in various homes and hotel rooms, even reuniting with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). The hastily reunited family must make their way to a mysterious location by a certain time on March 6th, but the forces of the cult they left behind and the federal government remain hot on their trail.

It would be wrong to spoil the mysteries that surround Alton. The young boy wears goggles in the day and massive ear muffs at night. For reasons that are explained towards the end, he has a mystical power where his eyes shoot rays of light that affect matter around him. The cult sees Alton as their savior and the feds see Alton as a potential weapon. But Alton’s family and Lucas embrace the ambiguity, maintaining a compassionate curiosity as to the truth behind the many mysteries of their child.

From its opening to its conclusion, Midnight Special keeps the intrigue building and escalating at every turn. Just when you think you might be entering a lull, the film raises its stakes with masterful timing. The same is true of how Nichols’ script reveals the layers of mystery surrounding, giving us answers while withholding the big reveal for the end. Throughout its running time Midnight Special is just pure engaging entertainment, building upon itself to maximum effect.

As usual, Michael Shannon is compelling as the concerned father desperate to protect his son. He is consistently one of the finest actors working today, and there’s something about the work of Jeff Nichols that brings out the best in Shannon. Joel Edgerton gives what is probably the finest work of his career, capturing a devotion and apprehension as the loyal friend to Shannon’s Roy. As the young boy at the center of Midnight Special, Jaeden Lieberher captures all the innocence of youth but conveys a certain celestial confidence as he begins to better understand himself. Both Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst shine in their supporting roles, rounding out the outstanding ensemble of Midnight Special.

Midnight Special is about humanity trying to control the unknown for the purposes of power. The federal government wants Alton because they believe he can be used a weapon. Conversely, the cult that wants Alton as a savior, a means to retain control over its followers. But not everything is controllable, and every turn for all parties involved the attempts to control the situations backfire. Whether messiah or monster, the unknown power of Alton is beyond the control of any mere man. But the reality of Alton’s uncontainable powers don’t dissuade the feds and the cult from ceaselessly trying to corral the unknown power.

Any film by Jeff Nichols is mandatory viewing for any self-respecting film fan, and Midnight Special further cements his status as one of this generation’s premiere filmmakers. This is a film that works on the most basic levels of visceral thrills as well as working on a sophisticated thematic level. Midnight Special is smart, well-acted, beautifully shot, and compelling throughout. Jeff Nichols has set a high standard for the year’s sci-fi fare, one unlikely to be matched.

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