Those worried that Jeff Nichols, the rising star of American art house cinema, had sold his soul by agreeing to make a studio picture have nothing to fear. Thundering towards us from across the highway comes Midnight Special, a sweaty and sinewy Sci-Fi mystery that’s forgivingly free from the Hollywood sheen.
Remaining true to the motif that has fuelled his filmography, Nichols – who once more takes up the reins as both writer and director – intimately anchors his film around family. We start small, meeting Roy (Michael Shannon) when he’s holed up in a motel room with his lifelong friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). News reports accuse Roy of abducting his child, but in reality he’s protecting him.Revelling in the restrained reveal, Nichols shrouds his story in mystery. Hunting Roy and his son are a federal task force, led by NSA specialist Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), and a gun-toting flock of faith-driven fundamentalists guided by the chilling Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd); the former see Alton as a threat, while the latter look upon him as a teacher. For Alton is no ordinary child, he’s not like us at all. Behind his eyes is an extraordinary power even he can’t control, which both the authorities and the extremists are desperate to exploit for their own gain.
Nichols has always displayed a deep-rooted understanding of contemporary American existence, and here he once again turns his attention to the structures of violence in the States, playing on the paranoia that’s innate to our current political climate. The Government’s shadow is always a few steps behind Roy, Lucas and Alton, but its presence remains eerily tangible. Just as the audience does, our heroes understand that they cannot escape the all-seeing eye of the law; they simply adapt to ensure they evade it.
A sparing use of music underlies the gritty tension, however it’s the direction that propels the pressure. The pace is regularly restrained with pauses that allow the enveloping atmosphere to build before the acceleration is punched once more.John Carpenter’s Starman has been cited as a primary source of inspiration, but more apparent are the Spielbergian sparks, which Nichols contrasts with his own idiosyncratic style – Midnight Special could be read as post-9/11 fusion of Spielberg’s seminal classics E.T. and Close Encounters. Flashes of awe and wonder compound with stellar action sequence, self-serious narrative, and moments of wry wit: many of them coming courtesy of a humorously evasive Adam Driver.
This is a blockbuster with brains, but it’s also one with a big heart. At the centre is not the supernatural study of a boy with magical powers, but a sensitive one of adoring parents who see their world torn apart by events they can’t control: the emotionally refined performances of Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, and Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s brooding “birth mother”, instilling this otherworldly tale with an earthly humanity. And though some may struggle to overcome the ambiguities of the plot to the point at which they no longer feel they can invest in this superhuman story, it’s crucial to remember that Nichols is never asking us to believe in another world; he’s simply helping us try to understand our own.