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Midnight Special's intriguing mysteries may not resolve themselves to every viewer's liking, but the journey is ambitious, entertaining, and terrifically acted.
All Critics (221)
| Top Critics (43)
| Fresh (183)
| Rotten (38)
Riffing on John Carpenter's Starman, writer-director Jeff Nichols has crafted a sci-fi chase film whose gravely naturalistic style adds to its sense of portent.
Nothing about this theme is particularly interesting or new, and it's still an open question how far Nichols can be ranked as an original creator as opposed to a prize pupil. Still, there's no doubting his craft and ambition.
Nichols has earned the right to take big leaps. Even if he doesn't stick the landing, it's a thrill watching him try. He, too, is something special.
Midnight Special starts strongly, and finishes nowhere very interesting.
You watch helplessly as the movie goes off the rails, the suspense and excitement leaking out of the enormous tension the early scenes had generated.
It all sounds terribly murky, but few filmmakers are as gifted at making you want to peer through the murk.
Midnight Special is brilliant, both in its simplicity and profundity.
Needless to say, when one of my favorite working directors tackles an emotional parent-child drama (which has its origins in Nichols' own experience as a parent), I'm going to respond to it.
Nichols doesn't quite have the confidence to honour the tauter, darker bent of his leanings, instead pushing the material more towards a hackneyed Spielbergian sentiment.
I hope Midnight Special serves as a great example to indie filmmakers to take their sensibilities and carry them over into the world of genre fiction.
The story is wonderfully detailed, entertaining, mysterious, and endlessly thrilling.
Midnight Special is trying to tell something more ambitious in scope, yet Nichols doesn't go out of his way to make it ambitious.
After making his name with three independent films in Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, director Jeff Nichols approaches his fourth feature with a bigger budget, making it his first studio production and allowing him to operate on a slightly more ambitious and grander scale. However, Nichols has a particular approach to storytelling and resists the urge to let the budget overshadow his intentions. Fans of his will be happy to hear that he continues his promise as a director with great depth and substance.
Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is young boy with a very special gift. So special that it attracts the attention of religious extremists and the Federal Government. To protect him, his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his longtime friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) go on the run with Alton to try and uncover the truth behind his special powers and how it could have a huge impact on the world itself.
From his aforementioned independent films, Nichols utilised the intensive talents of Michael Shannon and it has become a solid collaboration that you can rely on. With the exception of Mud, Shannon again takes front-and centre in Midnight Special and it's yet another example of how this actor/director partnership works so well. Nichols likes to tread a particularly methodical path with his stories and Shannon always seems to know the terrain very well, complimenting Nichols' approach with his usual brooding intensity. What's different this time, however, is that Nichols aims higher and quite literally aims for the stars. Gone is the Shakespearean tragedy of Shotgun Stories and the parable of Mud and in its place we experience the otherworldly and supernatural elements that he attempted with Take Shelter. In doing so, Nichols puts his trust in the audience to accept the premise and roll with it. It's a gamble but it's a gamble that pays off due to Nichols' sincere approach to the story and through the sincerity of his committed cast.
There's and unmistakable flavour of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter's Starman but yet still has the deliberate approach that Nichols has shown in his previous films. He resists the urge to shower the narrative in schmaltz, instead choosing to linger long on shots and capture the angst amongst his characters.
Is it formulaic? Yes. Is it predictable? Yes it is, but despite the formula and the film heading closer and closer to a predictable conclusion, Nichols still manages to pull through. His revelations verge on going too far but by the end you realise that you've witnessed a film that crosses all sorts of genres; it's an introspective drama, a restrained chase movie and an imaginative Sci-Fi and it tackles all the tropes with a deftness and skill. We've seen it all before but Nichols utilises that sense of wonder and touches upon the biblical elements that made his previous films so engaging. His grandest achievement, though, is maintaining a freshness and preventing a tried-and-tested story from becoming stale.
Much of Nichols' vision wouldn't be realised without his strong cast. For imaginative and otherworldly material of this type, it requires a commitment from those onscreen and all the principal leads deliver; Shannon is always an actor that can express so much by doing so little and it's easy to see why Nichols stands by him but it was the emotive (if underwritten) Dunst and, particularly, the charismatic Edgerton that really stood out for me. They both offer an emotional balance to Shannon's stoicism and young newcomer Jacob Lieberher has an ease and likability that convinces.
It's four for four from Nichols now and he's fast became a director that instills a feeling of anticipation on the news of a new project. His next film Loving (again with Edgerton and Shannon) can't arrive quick enough.
Midnight Special has all the makings of a great film but can just as easily be written off as pretentious dribble.
An amazing cast, sensible script and believable dialogue dresses up a seemingly biblical tale that illustrates the existence of a supernatural race and a child's destiny to join them.
Perhaps it's a story about parental love, or the second coming of Christ, or aliens, the list goes on. Whatever it is it's clearly beyond our scope of understanding.
And I suppose that's the point, we're not meant to "get it" but such mythical themes can only be so shrouded before it's seen as senseless.
Top cast deliver the tension in this taut little on-the-lam-from-the-federales chase piece. Too bad the payoff is lame-o.
Jeff Nichols should already be a household name after Mud and Take Shelter, and with his new movie Midnight Special, the man has done nothing to break his incredible record of success with making deeply personal, ruminative, thrilling, and brilliant films. Midnight Special is a better and more earnest love letter to the cinema of Spielberg than Super 8 was. A young boy exhibits strange and supernatural powers. The religious compound he came from looks at him as a prophet. The government thinks he might be a weapon. Two different groups are on the hunt for this boy, and that's where Nichols drops us right into the middle of, respecting the intelligence of his audience to catch up and figure things as they develop. In some ways it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road, an expert chase film that establishes its characters naturally as it barrels onward. The acting is wonderful all around and Nichols does a great job of finding small character moments that speak volumes, giving everyone time in the spotlight. The various twists and turns can be surprising, heartwarming, funny, but they stay true to the direction of the story he's telling and grounded in the simple, unyielding anxiety and love of parents for their child. Michael Shannon (Nichols go-to collaborator) is directly affecting as a humble but determined father risking everything for the well-being of his son. The concluding act left me awed and felt something akin to what I think Brad Bird may have been going for with Tomorrowland. This is a thoughtful science fiction movie that allows is characters space to emote, its plot room to breathe, and yet still thrills and awes on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It shouldn't be long before some studio finally taps Nichols to jump to the big leagues of a franchise film, but if he wanted to keep making these small, character-driven indies on his own terms, I'd die happy.
Nate's Grade: A
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