SXSW 2016: Jeff Nichols’ Soulful Sci-Fi MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

With every film, Jeff Nichols becomes an increasingly natural storyteller, and Midnight Special finds him operating on a new plane of confidence, seamlessly juggling more moving pieces than ever before. The film plunges us right into the story of Roy (Michael Shannon), a man on the run after kidnapping his super-powered son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a cult compound, and Nichols brings plentiful tension and his usual sparse, delicate style to the film, cementing his position as one of the best, most soulful filmmakers working today.

The basic premise of Midnight Special could work on any scale, either the intimate indies that Nichols cut his teeth on or the summer blockbusters he seems to have no interest in, but the film lands in a thrilling middle ground. The scope of Midnight Special is larger than Nichols’ previous work, but even its rat race of cult members, government entities, and other concerned parties searching for Alton is stocked with intriguing, wholly human characters. The film is equally ambitious on a thematic level, tuned into a specific parental anxiety about children growing up in a world their parents may not understand or recognize, while also intricately weaving threads about religion, loyalty, and dealing with the unknown into Nichols’ grand tapestry.

Midnight Special shares a lot of DNA with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the film’s supernatural elements beautifully blend with Nichols’ subtle style, giving the film the elemental feel of a modern myth, rather than a mostly computerized superhero epic. There’s a yearning and sense of awe to this film that makes comparisons to Spielberg’s UFO classic come naturally, but Nichols puts his own distinct stamp on the proceedings, especially in his handling of the supernatural. The film’s special effects are used in restraint, which only makes the awe-inspiring finale of the film all the more powerful, and the film manages to wring plentiful suspense out of the nature of Alton’s powers without over-explaining them.

In fact, Midnight Special has lots of questions in play, but Nichols keeps things grounded, letting the story unfold with the deliberate pace of a supremely confident filmmaker. His script is a dazzling showcase of character detail and story, keeping a number of questions in the air and deploying the answers at the perfect moment with a perfect balance of terseness and faith in the audience to fill in the blanks. Even better, many of these answers are intriguing enough to warrant their own films, particularly the circumstances that led to Roy kidnapping Alton. Nichols wisely puts a lot of trust on his ever-growing repertoire of actors, each of them fully capable of suggesting a deep and thriving inner life that perfectly compliments Nichols’ sparse storytelling signature.

Michael Shannon leads the incredible cast in the first of six films he’s starring in this year, and while no proof was needed that he’s one of the best actors occupying today’s screens, he offers plenty nonetheless, bringing his usual ferocious intensity but anchoring it in a terrified but passionate love for his son. Meanwhile, Jaeder Lieberher is startlingly good as Alton, elevating the super-powered child from mere plot device to a genuinely compelling character in his own right. As Alton slowly becomes aware of his own power and his place in the world, Lieberher imbues that journey with tenderness and emotional heft in a very promising performance.

The supporting cast is just as great, if more strategically utilized. Joel Edgerton is a standout as Lucas, a childhood friend of Roy’s who drops everything to help, and Edgerton is fantastic, gruff, and unhesitating but containing surprising depths. As the third leg of the broken family at Midnight Special’s core, Kirsten Dunst plays Sarah, Alton’s mother, with a painful undercurrent of regret. She doesn’t get nearly as much to do as the rest of the ensemble, but it’s a noteworthy performance nonetheless, and the continuation of a mini-renaissance for Dunst. Adam Driver rounds out the core cast as a NSA agent tasked with figuring out just what Alton is capable of, and he deploys his appealing brand of awkwardness and confidence here, giving a typically fascinating performance.

With this supernatural tale planted in the sweet spot between myth and authenticity, Nichols is practically inviting comparisons to Steven Spielberg, and he fares better than many directors who have used the father of blockbuster cinema as a point of comparison. However, he’s working in an entirely different pitch, telling stories so specific, personal, and powerful that it feels wrong to compare him to other filmmakers. In fact, if Jeff Nichols continues producing work of this quality, soon enough he’ll be the metric that younger filmmakers are measuring themselves against. He’s that good, and so is the transcendent, moving, and tremendous Midnight Special.

Midnight Special is now playing in limited release.

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the author

Alex Williams is an avid film watcher and four-year veteran of film criticism. He's contributed to The Daily Texan and DFW.com, and loves BBQ and geeking out over Lost. He currently resides in Los Angeles, but lives by two simple words: "Texas forever." Twitter: @AlexWilliamsdt