Midnight Special is about a parent who would do anything for his son, even if it puts him on the wrong side of the law. 

The movie seems to pick up mid-plot, which gives everything that’s happening a sense of urgency, but because we don’t have any exposition yet, we’re not quite sure why things are so urgent. It opens in a motel room with two men and a kid. There is the old trope of the news cast showing a picture of the fugitive police are searching for, followed by the reveal the bad guy is the character watching TV, and we realize these are the people on the run.

Michael Shannon plays Roy Tomlin. He appears to have abducted his own 8-year-old son 4 starsAlton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy we quickly learn has special powers of some kind. They’re being hunted by the government, which includes the FBI and an NSA agent played by Adam Driver. They stay just ahead of the hunt with the help of Lucas, a quiet, loyal friend played by Joel Edgerton.

Each movie should be appreciated on its own merits, but occasionally there are unrelated movies released so closely together, avoiding a comparison is very difficult. I’m reminded of when Without Limits and Prefointaine told the story of runner Steve Prefontaine about a year and a half apart. Or when Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones each played Truman Capote about a year and a half apart in Capote and Infamous.

Unlike those movies, Midnight Special isn’t a biopic, but it does suffer from comparisons  with one of the best Netflix releases of the year–Stranger Things. It has many of the same elements, such as the kid with mysterious powers running from from government officials with questionable motives. Midnight Special came out in April 2016, three months before Stranger Things debuted on Netflix, so it’s impossible for the movie to be actually be derivative of the show. But if you’ve already seen Stranger Things, it feels like a feature film version of one aspect of the plot, without the nostalgia or the Upside Down, and with none of the humour.

Of course, it’s unfair to consider Midnight Special and Stranger Things in tandem. Especially since Midnight Special was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, a serious filmmaker with a short but impressive resume, which includes Mud and Take Shelter. He’s the sort of young director who will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar someday and who has a long and promising career ahead of him.

Nichols is a director so confident in his story he allows parts of it to happen off screen entirely. There is no clumsy explanation of the backstory, no sudden flashbacks that make everything clear. We’re left to draw our own conclusions about the characters and why they’re doing what they’re doing, and that’s incredibly effective. For example, early in the movie we learn that Lucas is a state trooper, though he’s clearly one of the people police are searching for. This helps us understand why in a previous scene he acted selflessly to try to help someone else, even putting himself at risk. What led him to turn his back on the badge and get caught up in this situation? In a lesser movie, that would take up a large part of the plot.

The acting in Midnight Special is fantastic. Michael Shannon has appeared in all of Jeff Nichols’s movies, and I hope they continue to work together. He’s one of those actors who has a face that’s just fascinating to look at, and you’re not sure why. Joel Edgerton puts in such an understated performance I didn’t realize it was him in the role until about halfway through the movie. And for a demonstration of range, consider that the nerdy paper-pushing number cruncher is played by Adam Driver, the same guy who plays badass Kylro Ren in The Force Awakens.

Midnight Special is a supernatural departure for Jeff Nichols, but it’s also a bit of daring from an exceptional director who’s sure to get even better.

 

Title Midnight Special
Director Jeff Nichols
Writer Jeff Nichols
Runtime 112 min
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver
Production Faliro House Productions, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Tri-State Pictures, Warner Bros.
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