At the Berlin International Film Festival this year, a lot of talk rose about a film called Midnight Special. This is a different type of movie – one that refuses to outline every detail and motivation, moving at its own pace. This, mixed with its fantastic visual storytelling and emotionally powerful story, has made it a film of great interest. Having had a chance to see it despite its limited release, I can confirm that this is an absolutely captivating piece of cinema, and encourage you to go and see it too.
Piece by piece, Midnight Special gives little away, but the general story is this – a man (Michael Shannon) is being pursued, seemingly having abducted a child (Jaeden Lieberher). We learn fairly quickly that this boy is his son, Alton, a child who possesses special powers, and both the government and a group of religious extremists want to get their hands on him. What follows is a sci-fi chase that is propelled by a strong family dynamic, the journey of a father trying to understand and help his son, and it pays for the viewer to discover it for themselves. This movie is a treat for the intelligent viewer, encouraging them to invest and rewarding them when they do – a viewer who trusts the director to take their hand and lead them through this tale is in for something special.
Despite the sci-fi nature of this film, all the characters are treated as completely normal people holding steadfastly to their beliefs and convictions, and that helps to raise this story far above others of its ilk. The evoking of this atmosphere, of course, relies on fantastic and convincing performances by its leads. Michael Shannon is compelling as Roy Tomlin, the everyman father facing an impossible situation who is determined to do right by his child. His intense and committed performance is award-worthy, certain to resonate with the parents in the audience but no less powerful for everyone else.
A father must play along a child, and Lieberher (a kid who can hold his own against Bill Murray) is wonderful as Alton. Concealed away for the first part of the film, we later find that he becomes its core – he is both the MacGuffin of old and a figure of otherness at the film’s emotional centre.
Alongside them, we have Joel Edgerton as Roy’s friend Lucas, a dog-eared and complicated man who serves as the outsider to the family unit, and yet who cares equally as much. The traditional family unit, of course, requires a mother – in this case
, Kirsten Dunst, who is incredible here (and certainly the best that I’ve ever seen her). She follows a similar journey as Shannon’s character, trying to understand Alton and to do what is best for him, and her performance in the final act is simply mind-blowing. Midnight Special’s portrayal of parents is top-notch, catching it in a way more realistic films (if you will) simply do not.
The main cast is finished by Adam Driver, whose Paul Sevier (an NSA analyst) functions as the face of the mandatory ‘scary government’ and also as a lot of the comic levity. Driver plays an oddball, nerdy figure – a completely different personality to Kylo Ren – and manages to be as entertaining as he was in that film.
Now, if you’re a fan of answers and tightly constructed plots in which every elements is exactly chosen and explained, this is not the film for you. A number of interesting questions and stories are raised or hinted at, only to be dropped or ignored, and this has the potential to annoy the casual viewer. What is important is that these things don’t matter. The film’s focus is instead on the journey and the things that it illustrates about human nature – the desire to believe in something, be it family, religion or something else, is so important and so powerful to everyone.
The merging of sci-fi elements with incredibly human drama helps to build one of the most intelligent and emotionally impactful films of the year. Midnight Special lures the viewer in with a bunch of intriguing mysteries, and then keeps them invested by generating a family story in which they are guaranteed to be invested. This film really harks back to a different era of cinema – it has been compared to Speilberg’s work, a mark of high praise if there ever was one. Jeff Nichols demonstrates his mastery of the craft of filmmaking, employing straight sincerity and restraint to create a film that will surely be talked about and loved by audiences for years to come.