VOD film review: Midnight Special
Ivan Radford | On 12, Aug 2016
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver
Watch Midnight Special online in the UK: Amazon Prime / BFI Player / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“The only thing I ever believed in is Alton,” says Roy (Shannon) in Midnight Special. He’s talking about his son, who wears blue swimming goggles, only goes out at night and is currently being smuggled across the country in the back of a 1972 Chevy. Why? That’s the beauty of Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi; it has faith in its audience to wait and find out.
Faith is a huge part of what drives this retro thriller, which dismantles the genre cliches you remember from the 80s and reassembles them into a ruthlessly efficient engine that, like the car transporting the abducted Alton, stalks forward with no fear of keeping the lights off. It’s a breathlessly tense opening sequence – so quiet that you could hear someone breathe in the building next to you – with Nichols delivering all the exposition we need through long, elegant takes and little dialogue.
That flawless flair for unshowy storytelling has made Nichols one of the most exciting and original filmmakers around today; where other indie directors might go big with what could potentially have been a mainstream blockbuster, especially after the success of Mud, he contains everything within a small space, confident enough to ignore the wider trends of cinema and TV. (It’s a nice coincidence that this arrives in living rooms at the same time as Netflix’s similarly old-fashioned Stranger Things; if you liked that, try this.)
That’s not to say there’s no spectacle to be found in this tale of a supernatural child on the run. If anything, when the spectacle does arrive, the low-key backdrop makes it feel 10 times louder – a sequence involving a Louisiana petrol station halfway through is as scary as it is stunning. Combined with a pulsating electronic score by David Wingo, the result is so carefully put together you don’t even notice it.
Alton, we soon learn, has visions, speaks in tongues and seems to have predicted the apocalypse, absurd things that astounding young actor Jaeden Lieberher presents in unnerving deadpan – and with mesmerising, wide-open eyes. He’s made even more believable by the adults surrounding him, each of whom deliver their determined pursuit of the boy with the utmost conviction.
A superb Shannon, working with the director once again, is so intense he’s practically having a staring competition with the camera, while Kirsten Dunst makes a brief, but powerful appearance as an equally fierce protector of Alton. Sam Shepard is chilling as the slick, focused head of the ranch from which Alton is running. It’s telling that this charismatic head of a cult isn’t motivated by a conspiracy, or by power, or money, but by sheer certainty in his own religious teachings, inspired by Alton’s messages.
Into this world of stock truths wanders NSA agent Paul Sevier, played by Adam Driver in full Roy Scheider mode. Driver’s compelling, offbeat presence introduces a creeping sense of doubt to proceedings, his dialogue consisting almost entirely of questions asking people to explain the reasons behind their unswerving trust. Are they right? What, exactly, is Roy’s purpose? And what decade are we in?
Throughout, Nichols teases us with flashes of concrete evidence that seem almost dreamlike – and not just because our young superhuman spends his time reading comic books. That swaying between perspectives keeps you on your toes, as the director refuses to undermine the droves of cult followers, instead keeping us in the dark, like them, waiting for an epiphany to burst from Alton. The result bristles with creativity and childlike wonder, but the imagination is left for us to bring, so we can fill in the blanks.
Nichols has always enjoyed mixing grassroots and genre, with an eye for outsiders, a knack for suspense and an understanding of the epic nature of the everyday, when seen through the right person’s eyes. His masterpiece Take Shelter gave us a tantalising glimpse of a troubled man’s visions, but Midnight Special goes the whole way in a stunning final act that leaves your jaw hanging.
Even when we touch down at that point, we’re still not entirely sure where things are headed. Is Alton a weapon? A prophet? A saviour? The answer, though, lies in something equally special: he’s Roy’s son. And that paternal duty is just as great a force as any theological fanaticism or commitment to the law. “The only thing I ever believed in is Alton,” sighs Roy, a heartwarming statement that comes with it an unspoken sense of melancholia – what would his existence be without that purpose? Midnight Special has been touted as proof of Nichols being the new Spielberg. It’s a worthy comparison, not for the director’s sci-fi credentials, but for his ability to tap into sentiments that run deeper than nostalgia. The nostalgia behind every frame is as much the aching longing of a weary parent for the days of watching over their kids when they were still young. Sometimes, the most earth-shaking close encounters are not with some far-off species, but with other people.
Midnight Special is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.