You know one way to spot a talented writer/director? Watch him (or her) make something from parts that are instantly familiar, and then mold it into something that is completely unique. That’s what the young, gifted Jeff Nichols has accomplished with his latest feature “Midnight Special”. It’s a mysterious, haunting, frightening film, but you’ll recognize quite a bit if you’re astute. There are aspects of “Starman”, “E.T.”, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, however it’s also none of those things. I even tasted a bit of the borderline dreadful “Tomorrowland”, except here the technique employed actually works. Mr. Nichols previous movie was the Mark Twain-like “Mud”. That one had the smell of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” all over it, but it totally delivered. It made my 2013 ranking of the Top Ten Films of that year. Oh, and “Midnight Special” has Bill Camp. Everything is better with Bill Camp.
Alton Meyer (young Jaeden Lieberher) is special. So much so, that his father Roy Tomlin (Nichols mainstay, Michael Shannon) ‘kidnaps’ the boy from the cultish religious compound that they reside at, and takes him on a cross-country journey. Along for the odyssey is Roy’s childhood pal, Lucas (the always impressive, Joel Edgerton), as the trio intend to head from Texas to Florida for some sort of unspecified, expected event. We realize how serious this situation is, when a car accident occurs, and Lucas ends up shooting a state trooper in order to avoid detection. You see, the quite upset by his actions Lucas, is employed as a state trooper too. Meanwhile, the FBI, and especially one Paul Sevier (a superb Adam Driver, showing shades of Francois Truffaut’s role in 1977’s “Close Encounters”), are hunting for the group, attempting specifically to retrieve Alton. Also, the religious cult has sent two hitmen on the chase (the marvelous Bill Camp and a solid Scott Haze). By the time Roy and Lucas pick up Alton’s mother, Sarah (a poised Kirsten Dunst), we’ve already gotten a chilling look at what the goggle-wearing Alton can do with his eyes. And it’s completely out-of-this-world.
“Midnight Special” does an awful lot with its reported 18 million dollar budget. Rather paltry, by 2016 standards, the special effects shots were plentiful and effectively unnerving. Actor & playwright Sam Shepard has a decent role in the film, as he did in “Mud” before this. He fits perfectly in both. What the eight-year-old Alton is, and what he represents, and where he’s heading, makes for a consistently compelling adventure, and the denouement delivers a wondrous visual experience. And yet I wondered if it was too much, and if maintaining a level of suggestion would’ve proved more powerful (see my review of “The Witch”). No matter. I’m overall impressed by what Nichols achieves here, and if it ends up playing to the cheap seats somewhat, so be it. He’s not pussy-footing around this time–Jeff goes right for the jugular. And with this cast, and this screenplay, “Midnight Special” provides a trip well worth taking.