SXSW 2016 Review | ‘Midnight Special’ is Pretty Special Indeed
There’s a reason we tell stories over and over again. It’s not because we lack creativity (well, okay, sometimes it is), it’s because these stories matter. These stories have weight. Yes, even stories like Firestarter.
That’s probably why Jeff Nichols decided to follow up on his acclaimed indie dramas Take Shelter and Mud with a sci-fi thriller like Midnight Special, a film that seems to have be born in the 1980s and then leapt over 25 years to come out today. It’s genre film in the classic tradition of E.T., D.A.R.Y.L. and Starman that seems less interested in evoking nostalgia than it is in telling its out of this world story sincerely and effectively. So it makes sense that the film comes across as both sincere and effective.
Michael Shannon plays Roy, who at the start of the film has just kidnapped his own son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a sinister organization along with a childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). This is no ordinary abduction and no ordinary child. Alton has supernatural abilities that allow him to pick up radio signals in his brain, give people visions and emit beams of godlike light.
But whether Roy was justified in taking his son or not, kidnapping is kind of a big deal and now the government is after them. Actually, a lot of people are after them. Alton is clearly a person of extreme interest to extremists on all sides, and protecting him will put Roy and Lucas and eventually Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) in great danger.
I’m being vague for a reason. A great deal of the fun in Midnight Special is watching writer/director Jeff Nichols lay it all out for you, introducing characters in unexpected ways and subverting our expectations from scene to scene. The broad strokes of Midnight Special are familiar to fans of genre cinema, but the specifics are often surprising.
More importantly, the cast acts the living hell out of this movie. Michael Shannon has incredible insight about a father put in a terrible situation. Joel Edgerton plays a far more complex person than we are first led to believe. Kirsten Dunst has a worried look that speaks volumes. Every supporting cast member seems to be playing a fully realized character. The whole film feels real and lived in and plausible, even when something truly imaginative occurs.
Midnight Special takes something familiar and, while it’s playing, makes it enthralling all over again. But its immediacy may be its greatest flaw. It’s fascinating to watch Jeff Nichols lay out his story because he has new ways of doling out the information, but that information doesn’t have enough impact once you know all of it. Midnight Special concludes with its most familiar plot point, a satisfactory ending to a film that was beyond satisfactory before that. So it has less impact over time than it does while you’re sitting in a theater, watching the tale unfold.
So it’s not an instant classic. We can all agree that there are worse crimes. Jeff Nichols and his impressive cast and crew deserve credit for making something old feel fresh again, and for making Midnight Special seem just a little bit special.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.