If you paused when you heard writer-director Jeff Nichols’ next movie was an ambitious sci-fi about a boy with superpowers, bear in mind that he is no stranger to the supernatural. His last film, Mud, teased that its titular fugitive (played by a resurging Matthew McConaughey) might be a little more than human. The film before, Take Shelter, conjured apocalyptic visions of plagues and destruction in the warped mind of its protagonist (played by Michael Shannon). It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that Nichols fourth film, Midnight Special, is not a superhero movie in the DC/Marvel sense of the term; the director’s blend of subtle filmmaking and powerful performances resulting in a grounded, emotionally-driven domestic drama about a father and his son, who just so happens to have special abilities.
Shannon reunites with Nichols for a fourth time to play Roy, a desperate dad who goes on the run with his eight-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), to protect him from the clutches of a religious cult drawn to the boy’s special powers. Exactly what these powers are is not initially clear, with Nichols drip-feeding only the barest information to keep us intrigued by the mystery from start to finish. Things are complicated further when news of Alton’s abilities sparks an NSA manhunt, led by nebbish investigator Paul Sevier (a superbly empathetic Adam Driver), leading to a propulsive road-chase plot that gives the movie the feel of a tense thriller as Roy and Alton race against time to reach a mysterious location before their hunters can catch up.
Through both his lens-flaring visual style and the uplifting mood he creates, Nichols evokes the tone of 80s’ Amblin movies – John Carpenter’s Starman and Spielberg’s-own Close Encounters of a Third Kind are definite touchstones here. Yet it remains distinctly a Jeff Nichols film, with its grubby, dust bowl setting and economic camera work grounding the story firmly in the mundane. A reminder that this is a film about human beings and not the powers they posses.
Which isn’t to say things don’t get batshit crazy at times. Nichols mounts some impressive set pieces, including one breathtaking sequence that sees a petrol station being pelted with the flaming debris of an exploding air-force satellite. But the film’s real power is drawn from its humanity rather than its super-humanity. From Joel Egerton’s endearing turn as Roy’s efficient, virtuous getaway driver and Driver’s understated performance as the curious Sevier, to Shannon and Lieberher’s rawly emotional chemistry as father and son, this film is driven by excellent performances. Only Kirsten Dunst feels underused, her role as Alton’s mother, while adding a welcome female presence in an otherwise male dominated film, adds nothing to the story other than stealing focus away from the father-son dynamic at its core.
For all the well-crafted action sequences and exquisitely shot visuals, it’s the moments of subtlety where Midnight Special packs its biggest punches. One such scene sees Alton reassure his dad that he doesn’t have to fret over him anymore, to which Roy replies: “I’ll always worry about, that’s the deal.” Because this is really just story about the joy and pain of parenthood, one that’s more powerful and affecting than any superhero movie DC and Marvel could possible muster.
Runtime: 112 mins; Genre: Sci-fi/Drama; Released: 8 April 2016;
Director: Jeff Nichols; Writer: Jeff Nichols;
Cast: Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher
Click here to watch a trailer for Midnight Special