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Jeff Nichols’ new film is a peculiar '70s-'80s homage that cross-pollenates Spielberg-style sci-fi and the chase genre.

SXSW Film Review: Jeff Nichols’ ‘Midnight Special’

In Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ (Mud, Take Shelter) frequent star, Michael Shannon, plays Roy, a father on the run with his sickly young son, Alton (Jaeden Leiberher) and trusted friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton).

The cast of Jeff Nichols' 'Midnight Special' (l-r): Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst.
The cast of Jeff Nichols’ ‘Midnight Special’ (l-r): Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, and Kirsten Dunst.

Among those pursuing them are the followers of Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the self-righteous head of a religious cult on whose ranch Alton once lived with Roy and his ex-wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Given up for adoption to Meyer by his parents, Alton has been rescued by his father, and they are now fugitives.

It seems that the boy suffered from violent seizures at the ranch, causing him to speak in tongues as his eyes emitted a blinding white light, and Meyer and his followers had come to view him as a kind of apocalyptic messenger — and they want him back.

In fact, Alton possesses both psychic and telekinetic powers, which enable him to perform such spectacular feats as pulling a satellite from the heavens and sending it crashing to earth. During his “episodes” at the ranch, when he appeared to be speaking gibberish, he was actually delivering the coordinates to a destination that Roy is desperately trying to get him to, although he’s not sure why, only that Alton needs to get there. These coordinates have also been worked out by a wünderkind NSA agent (Adam Driver), enabling the government to track them as well.

Nichols takes a slow-burn approach in delivering these plot points, and it’s when the viewer is caught up in the mystery that the film is at its most intriguing. But as Alton becomes more self-assured and his powers more controlled, the plot sinks into formula even as it seeks to take unpredictable turns.

Comparisons to Spielberg’s Close Encounters (with a dash of ET thrown in) can easily be drawn. Mysterious coordinates presage a journey to an unknown location to experience an equally unknown phenomenon, all delivered by an otherworldly messenger. The character of Driver’s agent, who is finally won over to Alton’s cause, is tailor-made for Richard Dreyfuss, had the film been made in Spielberg’s sci-fi years, and Midnight Special frequently feels like it was. There’s even an “everybody stare up at the sky in awe” sequence.

As far as the performances go, the always watchable Shannon is allowed some rare fatherly emotions (if no less intensity) as Roy. Edgerton lends able support as his trustworthy pal, Lucas. Dunst tries to imbue Sarah with emotion and maternal affection, but her character is really mostly a reactionary bystander. Driver’s NSA agent is also a quick sketch whose dialogue is limited to proclamations and bumbling, comedic one-liners designed to amuse the audience.

Shepard’s fanatical Meyer is similarly restrained by cliché, and Lieberher, upon whose small shoulders all the fantasy elements come to rest, does the best he can with a rather vaguely-drawn character.

There are definitely some provocative ideas at work here. The blending of sci-fi mystery with a rural chase provides some early intrigue, and by the center point of the film, the viewer is more or less fully engaged and anxious for a spectacular revelation. Unfortunately, when this revelation finally arrives, it’s too obscure to be emotionally satisfying.

Midnight Special was reviewed at SXSW March 12, 2016, at the Paramount Theatre, Austin.

About Kurt Gardner

Writer, critic and inbound marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.

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