Midnight Special, the latest from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud), is rich, dense, and layered – both as a strong, idea driven science fiction and a moving family drama. In fact, this richness and complexity, in its various side stories, subplots, and narrative threads, almost makes me wish the film was three hours long instead of two. This has all the makings of a fine novel, and Nichols has proven himself to be a consistently gifted writer. It reminds me, at least in its ambitions and depth, of the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar!. However, where that film required extra runtime simply to bring the narrative together, Midnight Special still stands as a thoroughly satisfying film, albeit one that feels edited down from its ideal length in its theatrical cut.
At its heart, Special is a chase movie meets E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The opening pre-title sequences are stunning, doling out the necessary information quickly (Alton Meyer, who we quickly learn has some special abilities, has been kidnapped from The Ranch, a doomsday religious cult, by his biological father) allowing Nichols to pile on atmosphere and tension as Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) roar through the night. I don’t know how Nichols did it, but there’s an immediate sense of cosmic importance to those pre-title sequences that continues to permeate throughout the entire film. So, Midnight Special feels very, very big (on one side, The Ranch believes Alton to be a Christ-like figure, on the other, the government, believing him to be a weapon or asset of sorts). Further, Nichols juggles the mystery and thriller elements beautifully, resulting in Special‘s moments of spectacle feeling truly, well, special.
That said, the film’s true strength lies in its sense of intimacy. Nichols is keenly aware of the extraordinary talent he’s assembled here, and often holds the camera right up close to Michael Shannon’s face. Given he’s one of the strongest screen actors working today, it makes for a fine choice. Here action builds character and the family dynamics accrue weight through action, glances, and moments, often filtered through the viewpoint of Edgerton’s Lucas. He and Kirsten Dunst (Alton’s biological mother, Sarah) are equally brilliant. Despite its visual strength and atmosphere, Midnight Special is really told by their faces and their quick-by-necessity exchanges with each other and with Alton. These close-ups speak to the importance of faith in the film – faith from Nichols in his cast to do the heavy lifting, faith in Alton from Roy and Sarah, faith in general. Rarely, if ever, is idea-driven science fiction this emotionally powerful. Midnight Special might be the best film I’ve seen so far this year.