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Midnight Special (2016)

“Others have described seeing things.  Did he show you things?” asks Paul Sevier.  Fredrick responds, “Yes.”  Paul asks, “What kinds of things?”  Fredrick replies, “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Jeff Nichols is an intriguing filmmaker who’s slowly building an impressive filmography.  He made his directorial feature debut with 2007’s Shotgun Stories, and followed up that film with 2011’s Take Shelter and 2012’s Mud (which featured one of Matthew McConaughey’s acclaimed comeback performances).  All three films were critically acclaimed, and Nichols was hailed as a new voice in American cinema (all three films also featured Michael Shannon).  When I first saw the trailer, I was instantly hooked (it looked like an interesting road drama with a sci-fi twist).  I recently had a chance to finally see Nichols’ Midnight Special on the big screen (his first studio-backed effort), and it was an incredible experience (thankfully, the best surprises weren’t spoiled by the trailers).

2016’s Midnight Special follows a father who goes on the run to protect his son, who has mysterious powers, while being hunted by the federal government as they journey from Texas to Florida.  Nichols gathered together a terrific ensemble that included Michael Shannon (as Roy Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (as Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (as Sarah Tomlin), Adam Driver (as Paul Sevier), Sam Shepard (as Calvin Meyer), Jaeden Lieberher (as Alton), Paul Sparks (as Agent Miller), Bill Camp (as Doak), Scott Haze (as Levi), and David Jensen (as Elden).  Nichols regular Shannon gives a strong performance as a loving father who will do anything for his son no matter what the cost, and Lieberher is just as good as his son, who’s trying to understand what is happening to him and what his powers are.  Driver shines as a government agent who is trying to figure out what is really going on and how to (ultimately) help Alton.  Edgerton and Dunst also shine as Roy’s friend and wife, respectively, as they try to make sense of what’s happening to Alton.  Shepard is creepy in a brief turn as a cult leader who is desperate to recapture Alton in order to take advantage of Alton’s growing powers.  Jensen is also creepy as a former cult member who briefly aids Roy.

The screenplay by Nichols explores themes such as the bonds of family and trust as well as faith in humanity (it also feels inspired by such films as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, combining such elements as the family drama, the road movie, and science fiction).  Adam Stone’s cinematography reflects the somewhat darkish tone of the film, and Chad Keith’s production design is first-rate (the third act reveals are phenomenal).  Julie Monroe’s editing keeps the film moving at a great pace, maintaining the tension throughout.  The special effects are slowly revealed, but when they are eventually shown in their full glory, they are simply magnificent.  David Wingo delivers a tense score that keeps you on edge and maintains the mystery of the events that are unfolding.  Nichols’ Midnight Special is a low-key sci-fi film filled with a moving family drama and a science fiction tale that will deliver unexpected surprises (let’s just say that this is the kind of film that Brad Bird’s extremely disappointing Tomorrowland should have been more like).

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