With “Midnight Special,” rising filmmaker Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) returns with another compelling entry that fits nicely into his brand of magical realism and flawed characters; this time doubling down on the magical. “Special” is larger in scope (and budget) than his previous acclaimed efforts, and also forgoes some of the ambiguity of those tales for a slightly more straightforward thriller that feels like a darker cousin to Spielberg’s Amblin-era adventures.
The plot? Honestly, with this film, the less you know going in, the more effective it is. As such, I’ll just give you the basic setup: Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher) is a very mysterious boy who seems to have some inherent supernatural powers that have drawn negative attention from religious extremists and local law enforcement. His father Roy (Michael Shannon) risks everything to help Alton reach his “ultimate purpose” as he flees Texas with the more level-headed Lucas (Joel Edgerton) helping them on a dangerous road trip to the Florida coast. Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver (fresh off the Starkiller Base), and Sam Shepard play key roles along the way.
From minute one, Nichols drops us right in the middle of the action and lets us play catch-up as Driver’s character, Sevier, along with the FBI, continue their pursuit of Alton. Watching “Special” is very much the equivalent of reading a great novel, and although there are nods to the aforementioned Amblin films and other archetypal otherworldly occurrences, the film is that rare modern treat that sets us up on a journey that could literally go anywhere.
All talent in front of and behind the camera is top-notch here. Dunst particularly shines; her character’s fondness for Alton gives the film added heart at just the right moment. After this and her brilliant turn in season two of FX’s equally brilliant “Fargo,” she’s proven herself as one her generation’s best leading ladies. Further, the music and sound design build great tension, while the special effects, though limited, are also impressive. On that note, I commend Nichols: he spends time with his story and his actors, creating a believably lived-in world so that when the spectacle comes (and it does) it’s both immensely unsettling at times, and awe-inspiring at others. It’s a nice change of pace from the sometimes overwhelming nature of the modern blockbuster.
I’d really encourage you all to give this film a chance in theaters. Nichols is a talented young director who’s chosen to carve a path in telling original, personal stories on a large canvasse. That’s harder and harder to do in this era of filmmaking wherein most young up-and-comers must choose between two paths: big budget commercial products for the studios, or ultra-ultra-ultra low-budget, slice-of-life and/or experimental indies that are often so small they slip by most filmgoers unnoticed. I look forward to Nichols’ next entry, so let’s make sure he gets one.