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Midnight Special

Directed by Jeff Nichols
Produced by Sarah Green and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Written by Jeff Nichols
With: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Sean Bridgers, Paul Sparks, Dana Gourrier, Bill Camp, and Sam Shepard
Cinematography: Adam Stone
Editing: Julie Monroe
Music: David Wingo
Runtime: 112 min
Release Date: 21 April 2016
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

Midnight Special is the first major studio release from Jeff Nichols, the gifted writer/director of Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), and Mud (2012). Like those three previous features, Midnight Special stars Michael Shannon, but this time around the brilliant actor plays as close to an everyman as we’ve yet seen him on screen. Shannon’s Roy is the biological father of an eight-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). As the story opens, Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) have kidnapped Alton from a religious cult in order to reunite him with his mother (Kirsten Dunst). They're on the run; federal officers, local cops, and an NSA agent (Adam Driver) all seem desperate to find the boy, as does the cult's charismatic leader (Sam Shepard). The assured and patient Nichols is in no hurry to reveal why everyone seems so urgently interested in Alton. As the story unfolds our questions grow about who, or what, the boy is.

Warner Brothers is marketing Midnight Special as an indie version of a Steven Spielberg picture. But while there are numerous parallels to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), this film is far more reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Starman (1984), another movie whose protagonists flee through rural settings from a nameless group of government agents (and, like Driver's character, one slightly goofy guy who earns our sympathies.)  Both are sci-fi road movies dealing with love and loss, and each succeed far better as relationship dramas than as genre pictures. But while Starman is about romance, the love explored in Midnight Special is parental. Indeed, this is one of the best pictures in a long time to deal with the powerful, complicated emotions of parenthood. Nichols conveys many of the most basic, yet most complex instincts and feelings fathers and mother have towards their children. Much of this is expressed with few words and certainly without lengthy Oscar-baiting monologues that explain the motivations for the characters’ actions. The sparse delivery of both exposition and subtext makes for a refreshingly underplayed (and distinctly non-Spielbergian) film that separates it from most contemporary pictures about parenting—like the overwrought Life as We Know It (2010) or the saccharine The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012).

Ultimately, though, Midnight Special is a sci-fi film, and the genre demands an appropriate climax, and there it falters. Nichols seems to be trying to quietly expand his reach beyond the art-house and festival circuits with an appeal to more mainstream audiences. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the film's finale abandons the exquisite ambiguity that has always been his stock in trade. The movie doesn’t fall apart at the end, rather it comes together in a way that feels wanting compared with the rest of its ability to subtly explore the immeasurable depths of human connection.

Though I consider this the least impressive of Nichols’ four features, I still expect that it'll be his breakthrough picture. Nichols' respect for viewers' intelligence is as exemplary as his gift for collaborating with actors. Shannon has built an impressive career playing disturbed men and outright villains but here Nichols deftly showcases his sympathetic side. Dunst, playing a traumatized woman nearly wordlessly, delivers her finest work since Melancholia (2011), and Edgerton turns in another solid performance, as he's been doing all year. Even Driver, who between his signature roles in Girls and Star Wars now carries with him a great deal of onscreen baggage, deftly pulls off the role of the NSA agent who's out of his depth but may be the one person who understands what makes Alton so unusual. Jaeden Lieberher, who costarred with Bill Murray in St. Vincent (2014), is perfectly fine as Alton. But after a year of stunning screen performances from child actors, including Room, Theeb, Beasts of No Nation, Mustang, Infinitely Polar Bear, and The Grief of Others, the fact that we care so much more about Alton’s parents than we do about the boy himself can’t help but feel like one of Midnight Special’s shortcomings.