I’ve never quite clicked with director Jeff Nichol’s highly regarded previous films, but his latest is a bold move into the mainstream. Review after the jump.
In a beat-up car two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), flee through the night. They are both running away from something and rushing towards a destination. In the back seat reading Superman comics with a torch is a young boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) (a nice little Man of Steel in joke if you want to take it that way. You could almost see a twinkle in Shannon’s eye if he wasn’t being so intense). Travelling on quiet B roads the they sleep during the day in shabby motels and try and avoid making eye contact with strangers. As the party leave one such fly blown establishment a news report catches the eye of a suspicious receptionist. The newscaster with grim delight talks of an abducted child and a photograph of Roy’s face flashes on the screen. As the car’s tires kick up gravel leaving the parking lot, the reception its picks up the phone to dial 911.
The situation is not so simple. Lucas is Roy’s son but technically he has abducted him from a religious cult. Led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) the group are an apocalypse cult whose vague end-of-the-world beliefs are built around the boy. Little is revealed about Roy’s companion Lucas, but his haircut and ability to evade highway patrolmen suggest he has tactical training.
The chase picks up pace when the FBI raid the cult compound. During Meyer’s interrogation the Federal agents are joined by an NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). While the cult have clearly been stockpiling weapons, this would hardly call for the National Security Agency to be involved, so what gives? It isn’t the guns that have attracted their attention, but details of Meyer’s rambling stream of consciousness sermons. These are transcripts of the boy ‘speaking in tongues’ when in a trance state. The have been red flagged as a security issue because they inexplicably contain coded information broadcast by American defence satellites. It quickly becomes apparent to Sevier that Mayer is not a terrorist, but no one can figure out how the boy can possibly have come by this information.
With both cult members and the mobilized might of the US Government on their tail, Roy enlists the assistance of his estranged wife – and Alton’s mother – Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) in an increasingly desperate attempt to get Alton to a set of map co-ordinates that have been a recurring feature of his visions. Increasingly alarming paranormal powers manifest around the boy that seem to have a debilitating effect on his health. Roy thinks this destination is key to saving his son, the cult think it holds the promise of their salvation, and the authorities don’t know what it means but want to solve the puzzle of their cracked defence system encryption.
Watching Nichols’ Midnight Special is like discovering a really good early eighties adaptation of a Stephen King novel you never knew was even written. Nichols himself has raised John Carpenter’s underrated SF road movie Starman as a reference, taking from that film a taut chase structure (if not its romance). The influence of Stephen Spielberg is also abundantly clear, with shared story elements and themes from E.T. the Extra-terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In particular the way that the forces of authority are placed in an antagonistic role more through their misinterpretation of events than conscious malice.
However it is with King novels like The Dead Zone and Firestarter that I found the closest parallels in terms of story and mood. Nichols shares with King a fascination with blue collar protagonists with a distrust of authority (sometimes justified, sometimes not) that runs through his previous films Take Shelter and Mud. Like the protagonists of those films, Shannon’s Roy is capable of acts of violence that make him not an entirely comfortable hero figure.
By deliberately keeping the exact nature and origin of Alton’s powers a mystery (even from the character’s closest to him) Nichols generates tension, the increasingly dramatic effect of his uncontrolled paranormal powers raises the suspicion that Alton could actually represent a significant threat. In his zeal to protect the boy at all costs Roy will cross moral lines if he feels it necessary. In fact it is the outwardly intimidating Lucas who is the calming character trying to avoid conflict (although when it becomes unavoidable he is far more formidable). Throughout the film the motivations of the characters are elusive, keeping you guessing about where this story is going.
At the core of Midnight Special of belief. The cult see Alton as a messianic figure. And they frankly have concrete reasons for their belief. The NSA analyst Sevier has faith in technology and science, but becomes increasingly challenged in his beliefs. Roy is unencumbered by the cult’s dogmatism nor does he seek to find rational explanations. He is a father who knows his son is in pain and unquestioningly accepts that the only solution is to believe in his child.
The film moves with a deliberate but relentless pace that does not flag for the insertion of backstory and exposition. The point of view is always in the moment, and information is imparted only as it happens, without flashbacks. Although utilizing effective CGI effects, the director limits the scale to what is experienced by his characters. While many modern films run riot with the limitless possibilities of current VFX Nichols deliberately hobbles his use of them. Despite a contemporary setting the Americana of motels, diners, and gas stations forming the movie’s milieu line roads less travelled and could be from anytime in the last 30 years.
The cast play their roles with the conviction necessitated by a film that does not supply much backstory. Shannon is a granite-solid in his convictions and that makes his character veer between sympathetic and frightening, sometimes within a scene. There are similarities between Roy and another movie’s beleaguered father of a child with paranormal powers, Kirk Douglas in Brian DePalma’s The Fury (another possible visual reference for Nichols in his use of car headlamp flare in the early scenes). Egerton is excellent also, and has a buddy movie chemistry going on with Shannon. We know nothing at all about this Edgerton’s character until quite late in the film, everything we need is shown rather than told. As the film’s sole female character of note, Dunst enters the frame late bringing a more thoughtful and melancholy energy to the film. In honesty her role seems rather underdeveloped, but Dunst does her very best with it. Driver plays the sort of nerdy but cool scientist that would once have been earmarked for Jeff Goldblum and further establishes he is an actor capable of moving with ease from small to large screen roles.
Unlike JJ Abrams’ Super 8 (which is a film I like a great deal), Midnight Special feels less like a calculated ‘80s throwback’ than a film actually made in the early to mid eighties. Regular Nichols’ collaborator Adam Stone’s excellent cinematography is as impressive capturing dark highways as it is with blazing Southern sunlight. David Wingo supplies a soundtrack that thrums with electronic bass notes that would be very at home in a classic Carpenter film, but which feels organic to the material rather than a conscious attempt at being ‘retro’.
This is not a film that will please those who like every fantastical aspect of a story explained and categorized like a pinned butterfly. It builds to an exciting climax but also one that is ambiguous while being suffused with a genuine Spielbergian sense of wonder. It is exciting to finds a talented filmmaker like Nichols moving effortlessly to a grander scale without sacrificing the voice that made his previous work so interesting.
Midnight Special is released in the UK on the 8th of April from entertainmentone.