Midnight Special review: Like vintage Spielberg gone arthouse
Film review: Midnight Special

Matthew Turner delivers his verdict on Jeff Nichols' sci-fi chase movie, starring Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst

Midnight Special

Synopsis: A father and son attempt to out-run the FBI and a religious cult, after discovering the boy has mysterious powers.

Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver
Genre: Sci-fi thriller
Country: USA
Release date: April 8
Cert: 12A
Running time: 112 mins

Writer-director Jeff Nichols follows his loosely-grouped Arkansas trilogy (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud) with this gripping and engaging sci-fi chase thriller that plays like vintage Spielberg filtered through Nichols’ slow-burning, arthouse sensibilities – and his affinity for depicting Bible-belt America.

“More than mere nostalgia”

Nichols himself describes the film as an homage to the likes of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter’s Starman, but Midnight Special has much more to offer than mere nostalgia, serving up a compelling blend of mystery, fantasy and smalltown drama that exerts a powerful emotional grip.

Part of the pleasure of the film lies in the way the various plot details are drip-fed to the audience, so skip the next paragraph if you’d prefer to go in cold.

Suffice it to say that Michael Shannon (Nichols’ regular collaborator) plays Roy, a former cult member, who goes on the run with his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) after learning that the boy has mysterious powers. Pursued by both the FBI and the members of a religious cult, Roy receives help from his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) as they flee across the American South.

Midnight Special

The casting cleverly wrong-foots you from the off, as Shannon is best known for playing darkly weird outsiders rather than devoted fathers.

He’s on typically great, quietly intense form as Roy and forms a genuinely touching parental bond (“I like worrying about you”) with Lieberher, whose strangely unruffled performance is extremely effective.

In addition, there’s strong support from Edgerton (nailing the accent and investing Lucas with an unquestioning dedication to his friend’s cause that you instinctively believe in) and a delightful performance from Adam Driver (as investigating NSA officer Paul Sevier), who’s so much like Jeff Goldblum that you can’t believe no-one has yet thought to cast them as father and son.

“Increasingly tense atmosphere”

Similarly, Dunst continues her current fun of great work (following her terrific turn in TV’s Fargo) with a wrenching performance as Sarah, while Sam Shephard strikes a suitably sinister figure as cult leader Calvin.

Nichols’ excellent script strikes a finely-tuned balance throughout, carefully withholding plot information, but compensating with a wealth of character detail, ensuring that you’re pulled into the central mystery and strongly invested in the parent-child relationship.

On top of that, Nichols’ deliberate piecing out of the story generates an increasingly tense atmosphere and pays particularly great dividends when it comes to the effects work, with the various sci-fi moments gaining all the more power as they suddenly reveal exactly what Alton is capable of.

Worth seeing?

Combining an intelligent script, atmospheric direction and pitch-perfect performances, this is an intelligent and thoroughly entertaining sci-fi flick that confirms Nichols as a major league talent.


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