For many, a new movie from an accomplished filmmaker can be a special occasion. Tarantino, Scorsese, and the Coen brothers all have fanbases who mark their calendars whenever these filmmakers have a new project hitting theaters. Jeff Nichols has become that guy for me. Now before I am called out for unduly thrusting him into the company of the greats, all I am saying is that with only four movies under his belt Nichols has a defined vision and sensibility that I absolutely love. Whenever a Nichols film arrives it is a must-see.
“Midnight Special” is his latest film and first since 2012’s “Mud”. For the first time it features Nichols playing within multiple genres but not without adding his own undeniable signature. It’s a science fiction picture with Spielbergian flavor, but at the same time it’s impossible to pigeonhole. Quite honestly I don’t know what to call “Midnight Special” other than one more example of Jeff Nichols’ brilliance as a filmmaker and storyteller.
Armed with a humble $18 million budget, “Midnight Special” accomplishes many things that $200 million blockbusters rarely nail down. Most notably, a strong and compelling story that trumps an overload of special effects and thoughtful, interesting characters who are easy to invest in. The film looks great as Nichols knows how to shoot a scene and build a load of tension with his camera. But as with each of his other films, the characters are the core of the story.
Nichols favorite (and one of the most underappreciated actors in the business) Michael Shannon plays a man named Roy who is running from the law along with his childhood friend Lucas (played by the perfectly tuned Joel Edgerton). With them is Roy’s eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in what appears to be an abduction. Amber Alerts spread across Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The story becomes a fixture on national TV news coverage. The FBI joins the state and local authorities to intensify the search.
Here’s the thing, Alton mysteriously possesses otherworldly powers and different parties want him for their own selfish reasons. Roy just wants him as his son, and that gets to the true heart of the film. Nichols gradually lets us in on this father/son relationship that doesn’t always go in the directions you would expect. Another intriguing layer is added when Alton’s estranged mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) enters the picture. Adam Driver is excellent as an NSA analyst reluctantly thrown into the search and the always reliable is really good Sam Shepard playing a cult-like religious leader.
“Midnight Special” is undoubtedly science-fiction, but it also plays around in other genres and with several interesting ideas. It is very much a family drama. It’s a suspenseful thriller. It’s a chase movie. It dabbles in parenting, childhood, cultism, and government intervention among other things. Remarkably none of these things feel underserved. Nichols (who also wrote the story) brings all of these things together in a way that helps to strategically define the world his main characters are navigating.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the film is that Nichols doesn’t hold our hands and walk us through every aspect of his story. He slowly grants us bits of information while allowing us the space to piece them together ourselves. Sometimes he leaves things wide open, but it is never ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity as we often see in movies. He simply doesn’t answer every single question he asks choosing to allow the open-ended plot point or character to remain a mystery. The vast majority of that works perfectly, but I must admit there were a couple of instances that I felt deserved a little more attention.
That aside, “Midnight Special” is such a satisfying experience from Nichols’ smart script and assured direction to the top-notch performances especially from Shannon. It is an unconventional concoction that doesn’t feed on a desire for mass appeal. Instead it is a unique yet surefooted project that pulled me in and kept me hooked all the way through. I love it when a movie can do that.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
I have been looking forward to this one for a long time! I’m just waiting for it to get to my area. I’m glad to hear that it’s worth the wait!
Me too! One of my most anticipated of the year and it met every expectation. Do you like Nichols’ other films? For me he hasn’t made a bad film.
I love Mud, and I have yet to see Take Shelter, but I’ve been dying to because Mud is just so great.
Take Shelter is probably my favorite of his. Powerful movie and a performance from Shannon that deserved Oscar consideration. Of course it didn’t get it. Shotgun Stories is very good too.
I’m going to see this later this weekend as I’m anxious for this as I enjoyed 2 of Nichols’ last features as the only film (other than the upcoming Loving) of his that I’m going to see later in the year is Shotgun Stories as I’m planning to do an Auteurs profile on him in the summer.
Shotgun Stories is a really good first feature and you can see the early signatures that he is now identified by. This one is really good. Not a conventional film by any means. That’s one of the things I really love about it.
Such great news! I’m really looking forward to this. There’s something mysterious about this, in the vein of 10 Cloverfield Lane but without the knowledge of it being locked into a particular genre. Great review, you’ve got me really excited for this. (And I’d totally trade having this one in my area over Knight of Cups)
LOVE IT Tom! My favorite film of the year so far. Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite working directors. He is 4 for 4 in giving us really good quality movies. This film is so pleasingly unusual. It doesn’t follow any traditional formula or outline. I’m really hoping a lot of people will get out and see it.
Yep. Totally just loved this thing. It’s got my first 8/8 of the year. This was a great ride to take
YES! I absolutely LOVE hearing that. As a huge Nichols guy I’m really hoping this film catches the attention of a lot of people who have been unfamiliar with him. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers. Anxious to get over and read your thoughts.
This sounds pretty great!
My favorite of the year so far. Have you seen any of Nichols’ other pictures?
Will keep my eyes peeled for this one, sounds very good, and loved your review. I will have to see how it goes. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Mud, I thought it was okay, and the same applies for Take Shelter – not bad, but not all my cup of tea.
Ooooh, well I hope you will like this one. It features the same character-centered approach but with a very strong sci-fi element. I’m really hoping this will be the film that gets Nichols’ name out there.
Can’t read this yet. Just came out today. I’m desperate to see it! Your rating is encouraging, though. 🙂
It is spoiler free but I think I would skip reading until afterwards too. This really is one of those films that is better the less you know. I’ll just say it is superb! Enjoy it.
Yeah, I know very little at this point. Going to it on Tuesday! 🙂
Great review! Really looking forward to it. I love Mud and Take shelter and David Wingo’s score to both of those and I think he scored this one too. I need to see Shotgun Stories one of these days.
Shotgun Stories is very good too. You should definitely check it out. Michael Shannon is in that one too.
I loved that the movie was so ambiguous. I only wish he had continued that feeling through to the ending. Otherwise, a spectacular film.
I’m noticing several reviews that share that response. For me it was a near perfect balance of ambiguity and answers. I’m really kinda glad he did give us a little in terms of explanation while withholding quite a bit. As I mentioned I do wish they would have invested more time into a couple of storylines most notably Driver’s. There is a point where he disappears and then later he reappears. That deserves a little explanation.
I was blown away by Take Shelter and really admired Mud, so I’ve been pretty excited for this one for quite sometime. Looking forward to seeing it.
Anxious to hear your thoughts. I agree, Take Shelter is superb. I wish more people takes about it.
Caught this yesterday, and really liked it. Some good performances across the cast and I enjoyed the way the mysteries surrounding Alton were either left unexplained or slowly teased out. The only thing that disappointed me was the way Sam Shepard’s character disappeared from the story; I guess he became irrelevant as things opened out, but personally I was intrigued by him and wanted to see more of the goings-on on the ranch.
Glad you liked it. It’s my favorite film of the year so far. Absolutely love it. I get what you’re saying about Shepard’s character. He was incredibly intriguing and I too wanted to see more of him. But on the flipside I do think digging too much into his story could possibly take away from the true heart of the film. I kind of like how Nichols stays on course. But there is a part of me who wants to know more about Shepard and his followers.
True enough! I did like the fact Nichols stayed on course too – the focus stays on the father-son/mother-son relationship, and I’m glad for that.
Agreed. But don’t think I’m dismissing your point. Shepard is so magnetic and the entire doomsday cult angle was laid out perfectly. It definitely had my curiosity high.
No, I didn’t think that, don’t worry! It was definitely a film that cultivated curiosity and I liked the way it teased the answers out (albeit not all of them). This is actually one of the first films I’ve seen in cinemas in a long time where I didn’t know much about it going in; I’d managed to avoid trailers and reviews beforehand, so the only thing I was aware of was the buzz surrounding the fact it was Nichols taking on sci-fi.
And I think that makes a big difference. This is a movie that is stronger the less you know about it. I had watched the trailers but kept myself in the dark. It really paid off for me.
It was a great movie and I have a feeling it is one I will like even more on rewatches. It’s a bit of a slow burn and I can see some people thinking it is boring but I like what it has to say about belief. That’s the main theme I got from it- what belief can do to different kinds of people. How it gives you hope but can also be very painful at the same time. It’s a great movie! Right now I have it as 3rd best of year with Zootopia and Everybody Wants Some ahead of it but like I said it may move up the more I think about it.
Yes, I love your point about belief. There are just so many things you can take away from that film. Again, something that points to Nichols’ skill as a writer and director. I really hope this earns a bigger audience.
I’m impressed with how many screens it is playing on by me. It’s cool when these indy films get bigger releases. It’s interesting because in some ways it’s the movie I wanted Tomorrowland to be and only 18 million budget!
Oh yes, Tomorrowland. Some interesting ideas there but it feel so flat for me.
– Fell flat, not feel. Oops
Excellent work Keith, and I’m right there with you regarding Nichols — he’s undoubtedly one to get excited for. This is another great showing.
I really have been wanting to watch this for the longest time. Thanks for the great review, it sounds so interesting!! How are you Keith?
Doing well my friend. Extremely busy as of late which has taken A toll on my writing and movie watching, but trying to get back into the swing of things. Really great to hear you are excited for this one. Has it opened in your area yet? I really hope this movie gets an audience. It is such a unique bit of science fiction and it’s a lot of fun watching it hop from genre to genre.
Great review, Keith! This is next on my list to watch! I love sci-fi, and I’m intrigued with what you wrote regarding the multitude of genres being played around with. Can’t wait!
Thanks! Glad to hear you’re checking it out. Really proud that people are having a positive reaction to it. Its a unique bit of sci-fi but one I think you will really appreciate.
“Armed with a humble $18 million budget, “Midnight Special” accomplishes many things that $200 million blockbusters rarely nail down.” You nailed it right there.
It just goes to show what a great writer and director can put together. I have nothing against big-budget movies when they’re done well. But how often do we see them put all the emphasis on showing off their money instead of their creativity?
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