Midnight Special is an ambitious sci-fi thriller

Indie director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) leaps to the big leagues with an impressive original screenplay.

Midnight Special
Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special

4 star rating

In a world where a director like Colin Trevorrow can hop from a tiny indie film like Safety Not Guaranteed to a major tentpole like Jurassic World in one move, the idea of indie directors expanding their scope isn’t necessarily reassuring (granted, Trevorrow’s direction is one of the less terrible elements of the generally unsatisfying Jurassic World). Jeff Nichols has moved more incrementally in his career, moving from his initial role as heir apparent to David Gordon Green (Shotgun Stories) to somewhat more of a ’70s-styled populist with his last film, Mud.

I liked all of Nichols’ films (which also include Take Shelter) but I was slightly more wary of his move towards sci-fi in Midnight Special. I don’t begrudge indie directors for taking the plunge towards more challenging material, but I don’t particularly enjoy watching them fall flat on their ass doing it. Thankfully, this was mostly unfounded here. Midnight Special is both surprisingly ambitious and a completely organic move for Nichols.

Midnight Special 2
Michael Shannon and Lieberher

Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is special — exactly how special and the extent of his powers isn’t known to his father Roy (Michael Shannon), but it’s enough to convince him to break Alton out of the religious cult that considers him the key to the rapture and to hit the road. Accompanied by an old friend (Joel Edgerton), Roy believes that he must bring Alton to a specific location at a specific time so that his powers (he appears sensitive to light and sound and attracts energy almost involuntarily; one episode sends satellites crashing down all over the gas station where they’ve stopped) can be put to their intended use. Alton’s disappearance from the cult (led by Sam Shepherd) interests the authorities, particularly NSA communications operative Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, in full Goldblum mode), who has traced bits of the cult’s Alton-based sermons to highly encrypted government communications.

Nichols’ biggest strength has always been modulation — in the way he uses the visions of the apocalypse sparingly in Take Shelter or the way he never lets Mud be a movie for kids despite the fact that it’s a movie about kids. Here, Nichols indulges his inner Spielberg in a major way, weaving elements of Close Encounters, E.T. and The Sugarland Express into a peculiar kind of sci-fi movie that remains purposely elusive on the science front.

Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton

It’s exceedingly rare these days to see a movie clearly concerned with the supernatural that doesn’t also engage in excessive world-building or backstory-fleshing. Midnight Special essentially equates its supernatural elements to faith — they remain somewhat inexplicable and shrouded in mystery. Whether or not Alton actually is the messiah or why he has traits that qualify him to be seen as such is just about the least important thing about Midnight Special.

A lot of Nichols’ favourite themes remain: the anonymous South, far removed from any caricatural redneck portrayal; the slippery ethics of characters who must do the wrong thing in order to let the right thing happen and the begrudgingly understanding authority figures involved therein. Midnight Special is (without spoiling too much) kind of an ambitious sci-fi movie, but also a lean chase thriller and heartfelt, minimalist family drama. ■

Midnight Special opens at the Cineplex Forum Cinemas (2313 Ste-Catherine W.) on Friday, April 1. Watch the trailer here: