Prepare to be transported somewhere wonderful with Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi drama MIDNIGHT SPECIAL.
With an absolutely stellar cast and a beautifully original story, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL sees amazing writer / director Jeff Nichols deliver his biggest and boldest movie to date. And what a movie it is. Starting like a thriller, with two men on the run with a young boy, it moves seamlessly from that into a drama and then a sci-fi – each shift melding into the other with a pace that pulls you along on one incredible ride.
The men are revealed to be Roy (the can’t take your eyes off him Michael Shannon) and Lucas (the splendid Joel Edgerton) and the boy is Roy’s 8 year old son Alton (a stunning Jaeden Lieberher). With Lucas’s help, Roy and Alton have fled the ranch that was their home because they have just four days to get Alton to a designated place where something will happen.
From this elliptical opening, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle presented to us one by one, we learn that the ranch was a cult run by the charismatic Calvin Meyer (the equally charismatic Sam Shepard) who had adopted Alton as his son two years before and made the visions the young boy had started experiencing, the centrepiece of his teachings. But it’s not just Meyer who has identified the boy’s unusual powers, they have also been discovered by the US government and have used a raid for illegal weapons on the ranch as a cover to take Alton into custody.
“You all have no clue what you’re dealing with” says Meyer to the authorities (and the audience) early on and so the daring escape that Roy has initiated to firstly reunite Alton with his mother (a wonderful Kirsten Dunst) ex-communicated from the cult some years ago, before reaching this special location looks to have many obstacles in its path. Those obstacles include potentially the NSA agent Paul Sevier (another fantastic performance from Adam Driver) who’s been tasked by the government with working out what’s going on and definitely in the form of the two cult members Doak and Levi (a brilliant double-act in Bill Camp and Scott Haze) who have been assigned to bring Alton back to the ranch at all costs.
For me Nichols, alongside Bennett Miller and J. C. Chandor, forms a triumvirate of American film-makers that have emerged in the last five years who are at the forefront of making truly, dazzlingly powerful movies. I’m such a huge fan of their work and Nichols with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL seemed to me to be expanding on the epic ideas that populated my favourite of his films to date, Take Shelter, where the main character’s apocalyptic visions possibly heralded the end of the world.
Here, in what I think is his first studio-backed picture, he’s brought a scope to his story that reminds you of those gloriously ambitious and yet character-driven sci-fi movies of the late 70s and 80s, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman. I found it breathtaking to behold. Behind the camera, I must also mention the superb score by David Wingo (who also worked on Nichols’ last film Mud) that pulses and hums with a hypnotic intensity and the camerawork by another Nichols’ regular Adam Stone, with his effectively stark contrasts of light and shadow – a field at sunrise, a car driving without lights on a road at night – giving the picture a vast but then intimate focus.
If you’re looking for a movie that will knock you sideways with its scale, whilst challenging your mind, then don’t miss the out of this world MIDNIGHT SPECIAL.