Jeff Nichols, the director behind films such as Take Shelter and Mud, returns with his fourth feature film, Midnight Special.
A daring and intimate sci-fi thriller set in the heartland of America, Midnight Special one again sees Nichols writing and directing his own material. The film centres on a father, Roy (Michael Shannon) and a son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who're on the run from the government and a cult drawn to the child's special, supernatural powers.
Accompanying them on their high-stakes road trip are Lucas (Joel Edgarton) and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), each of whom will stop at nothing to ensure Alton's safety. Leading the charge to capture Alton is Sevier (Adam Driver), an intelligent NSA agent who has some interesting theories about the origin of the young boy's powers.
The first thing you'll notice about Midnight Special is that it doesn't spoon feed the audience; Nichols purposefully pulls back from revealing too much, giving the viewer the chance to fill in the blanks for themselves. Instead the film cuts right to the chase; we pick up the story with Alton, Roy and Lucas already charging down the darkened highway having escaped the hysterical cult that worships the child.
Through dialogue we discover more about the boy and his powers, as well as why he needed to escape. There are no frills adorning Nichols' tight screenplay, no lengthy scenes of long-winded exposition. He keeps the storytelling simple, ambiguous and mysterious. Inevitably this leads to a ponderous conclusion that, in keeping with the film, is bereft of specificity - but if you don't mind giving the story some thought and piecing it together with your peers, Midnight Special is right up your alley.
Nichols has his sights set on aping classic 70's and 80's sci-fi, particularly seminal works from Spielberg like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. Midnight Special may not go down in history as something quite as influential as either of these films, but it does do a fantastic job of capturing that same sense of awe, uncertainty and paranoia without being a straight-up feature length homage like Super 8 was for JJ Abrams.
Regular Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon gives a terrific lead performance as the reserved but caring and protective father, whilst Dunst offers the other side of the coin as Alton's warm mother figure. Leiberher, who previously starred in St Vincent, is astounding as Alton - he's quiet and withdrawn, with sporadic bursts of energy and blinding light draining his character of life. Driver also commands the screen with a presence that draws your attention with every line of dialogue.
The gorgeous cinematography from Adam Stone drenches the classic Americana backdrop with rich oranges and deep purples. The night scenes are thick and impenetrable, literally and metaphorically keeping the characters and the audience in the dark as they surge further into the night. It's a beautiful film to look at, reminiscent of Roger Deakins' work on Sicario from last year when it comes to how it frames dawn, dusk and pitch dark.
The Verdict: 8.5/10
A feathery screenplay, gorgeous cinematography and a compelling score give Midnight Special a retro look and feel akin to low-budget, wondrous sci-fi films of old. A trio of excellent performances from Shannon, Dunst and Driver make this another excellent entry from the now established and reliable Nichols.
Midnight Special is in cinemas across Australia now.