Director/writer Jeff Nichols walks a tightrope with his latest film, Midnight Special.
The Arkansas-born, Austin-based indie filmmaker is known for such movies as Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, tense and personal character studies set in the South or the Midwest.
With Midnight Special, he takes a gamble that many in his position have lost.
Working for a major studio (Warner Bros.), with his biggest budget to date ($18 million), and dabbling in the arena of special-effects and science fiction, Nichols probably has his longtime fans wondering if he’s now chasing dollars instead of dreams.
But the good news is they can (mostly) rest easy as Midnight Special, a riff on both ’70s/’80s-era sci-fi (Starman) and Spielberg films (The Sugarland Express, E.T.), is a satisfying, low-key thriller.
Even if the film unravels a bit at the end, the set-up is terrific, driven in large part by the way Nichols continues to play to his storytelling strengths.
It’s set in Texas and along the Gulf Coast to Florida, a region Nichols seems to know well. And the core cast is strong, led by Michael Shannon (a Nichols’ regular), Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton.
Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Edgerton) are longtime friends on a mission: rescuing Roy’s young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a cult. But Alton is not just another victim; he has special powers that the cult exploits as they believe he can prophesize the future.
Alton’s fame has even attracted the attention of the government, specifically the FBI’s Paul Sevier (Driver), who wants to get hold of him to find out how he knows what he knows.
Roy and Lucas aren’t taking Alton to bring him home or deliver him to the government, even though they do let him see his mother (Dunst). They’ve got something more special in mind that relates to a big prediction Alton has made.
Midnight Special then is essentially a chase movie but one made with an enveloping sense of suspense. Roy and Lucas careen across the South, and for much of the film viewers are left in the dark as to what Roy and Lucas are up to and the extent of Alton’s powers.
Nichols acquits himself well in terms of special effects. The destruction of a gas station by plummeting pieces of a satellite is heart-pumping.
Midnight Special’s problem is the payoff isn’t quite worthy of the teasing intrigue and building mystery. Ex Machina it’s not.
This is just the first of two films this year for Nichols. His next, Loving (due in November), looks at what happened to Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple sentenced to a Virginia prison in 1958 for getting married.
It’ll be good to have Nichols’ filmmaking feet firmly back on Earth again.
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☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst
Rated: PG-13 (some violence and action)
Running time: 111 min.