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Midnight Special – Movie Review

31 March, 2016 — by Douglas Clarke-Williams0

In Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols has crafted not just a damn good science fiction film, but one of the most thoughtful and beautiful depictions of parenthood we have seen for some time.


Children see things differently. They look at the world in a way that adults frequently find incomprehensible, but nonetheless alluring. Midnight Special is in part a film about those different ways of seeing: the way a child sees the world; sees their parents, the way those parents see their child, and the lens through which a child filters reality.

We are thrown into the Midnight Special with minimal exposition, and it’s a trend which continues throughout. Dialogue is sparse, and we’re treated to far more panning shots of waving cornfields and roads unspooling off into the horizon than we are explanations of what exactly is going on. We must make sense of what we see only by the act of looking, and through the way the characters look at each other.

In that regard Jeff Nichols has assembled a fine cast for us to follow across America’s bible belt towards whatever kind of revelation awaits them. Joel Edgerton drawls his way across the South as gruff ex-state trooper Lucas, all business except for a couple of moments of tenderness, made all the more powerful for their restraint. Kirsten Dunst puts in a particularly fine turn as the mother who must surrender her son; it’s a difficult role to play with a necessary tact and lack of melodrama, but her smiling eyes and anxious hands are the perfect evocation of the sorrow and joy of letting go. Credit should also be given to Adam Driver, swiftly becoming one of the most watchable actors right now, who brings humour and levity to a script which occasionally threatens to become weighed down under its own portentousness.

But it’s Nichols’ long-time collaborator Michael Shannon as Roy, the fiercely driven father, alongside Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton, the boy everybody wants to know, who form the beating heart of this film. With the father’s eyes set grimly on the road while his son pores over comic books in the back seat, their relationship is shot through with a fierce love and affection all the more impressive for how few words are used to express it. “I like worrying about you” Shannon declares at one point, and it’s here that you realise how rarely this very real and paternal kind of adoration is convincingly portrayed on screen.


In terms of plot Midnight Special is essentially a chase movie. Shannon, Lieberher, Dunst, and Edgerton are pursued across Texas and Louisiana by a government that sees the miraculous boy as a weapon and a cult who sees him as their salvation. This sort of Revelations-themed take on the miracle child has been tried unsuccessfully before – one is better off not recalling Nicholas Cage’s The Knowing from 2009, which wielded its eschatology with all the subtlety of two pool balls in a sock. Nichols constantly brings our attention back to the child, to the family, and in doing so gives the film a substance and depth far beyond its sci-fi trappings.

But when those trappings are brought to the fore, it’s done with a flair and imagination, which does give credence to the somewhat lazy designation of Nichols as the new Spielberg. Whether it’s hellfire raining down on a rural gas station or suburban homes being rent at the seams by the power in the boy’s eyes, these scenes are made all the more powerful and revelatory for Nichols’ unerring eye for the beauty in the mundane. The richness of the 35mm photography makes blacked-out motel rooms and empty highways appear like stages for something real and true; even when there’s nothing there, there’s always something to see.

Whether you’ll like the climax of the film or not will depend entirely upon your taste for the great reveal. It’s ultimately to Nichols’ credit that even in showing us everything we are still left wondering who is Alton? Angel, alien, or just something else? He’s a child whose parents do not fully understand him but who love him remorselessly, a child who steps out of their world into one full of promise and wonder. It’s a step they know he must take, but it doesn’t lessen the pain of having him gone from their arms. What can be more real than that? 4/5

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Midnight Special

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