Original sci-fi films tend to be a challenge for many great directors. Men like John Boorman, Richard Kelly (who isn’t great but bear with me), and even Robert Altman have struggled when dealing with the genre. It’s often a point of no return. Thus all signs pointed to a similar fate for Jeff Nichols, whose first three films were critically acclaimed pieces of realist art. Delving into an homage to John Carpenter was a huge risk. A six month delay also pointed to serious trouble.
Despite the warning signs, the opposite proved true. Midnight Special was strongly received by critics and though it failed to turn a profit at the box office, it seems fated for a long afterlife. But none of those things have any bearing on what I actually think about the film, which is this: It’s great.
Midnight Special is a surreal oddity as original SF films go. It’s almost stubbornly grounded in reality. Writer/director Nichols refuses to move the film outside the familiar sights of the backroads of the south and interstate motels. When he deals with the cult at the fringe of the film, it reflects obvious research into real ones. Most vitally, we’re not given any answers as to what’s going on. What is this strange child? Why is he here? We don’t find out.
All of this is why the film works. By ignoring world building, Nichols keeps his eye on his actors. We’re not given much backstory for them either though their performances say it all. But we’re given a film about people, not a universe. Strange things happen, but this is always about a father trying to help his son. It’s a believable idea.
As usual, Nichols works with his right hand man Michael Shannon, who gives a revelatory performance. We’re used to creepy, unnerving Shannon so strong leading man Shannon is a startling turn. He infuses his performance with a center of decency and openness to the wild events around him that makes the film quite moving.
He’s given incredible backup. Joel Edgerton as his partner in the plot is potent, a quiet but strong force. Kirsten Dunst gets some of her best work in years as the estranged mother who cares but has no idea how to operate in this situation. Adam Driver is a blast as the first NSA agent in a movie who isn’t evil. Sam Shepard is strong as a plausible cult leader. Then there’s Jaeden Lieberher who shines as the film’s MacGuffin.
The film also benefits from an extraordinarily beautiful look at areas not usually allowed to shine in film. The south of this film is the one its residents know. It’s haunting, gothic, but lovely. Nichols knows this world and lets it shine.
Midnight Special is something unique and rare, a risk which paid off in spaces. I can’t recommend it enough for anybody seeking something original.