Midnight Special (2016)

  • Time: 111 min
  • Genre: Adventure | Drama | Sci-Fi
  • Director: Jeff Nichols
  • Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst


A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.


  • When I Heard That Movie Was was compiling our list of most anticipated films of 2016, we found it close to impossible to narrow it down to just eight-ten films. So, we cheated and broke it down to eight different categories of films that we were anticipating for the upcoming year because lets be honest, if we didn’t then we would of ended up with a list consisting of mostly superhero films. Midnight Special is one of the many films that made our list (under Beloved Directors) and the feeling is hard to describe when a film you were anticipating was everything you were expecting and more.

    A provocative, genre-defying film as supernatural as it is intimately human, it follows a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), who goes on the run to protect his young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers that even Roy himself cannot comprehend.What starts as a race from religious extremists and local law enforcement quickly escalates to a nationwide manhunt involving the highest levels of the Federal Government. Risking everything, Roy is committed to helping Alton reach his ultimate purpose, whatever that might be and whatever it costs, in a story that takes audiences on a perilous journey from Texas to the Florida coast, while exploring the bonds of love and trust, and the nature of faith.

    An issue in cinema these days is that directors and screenplay writers hold the viewer’s hand throughout the film with either over-explanatory dialogue or overly-explained narration but that is not the case for Midnight Special. It as if the audience will protest the film if they don’t fully understand what is going on. They need to know why and what our heroes and villains are doing but director Jeff Nichols could care less about your hand as he has made a film that truly respects your intelligence. You won’t come to understand the themes of Midnight Special through its narration but you sure will come to them emotionally as Nichols’ fourth featured film is a beautiful display of visual storytelling.

    Nichols intertwines the themes of faith and parenthood throughout the film and what is even more spectacular about this film is that Nichols is always one step ahead of the viewer as he is already setting up the next question as we just found out the answer to the previous one. Michael Shannon’s Roy and Joel Edgerton’s Lucas are on a journey to make sure Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton gets to where he is destined to be. Roy, Alton’s father, is driven by parenthood and Lucas, a friend of Roy from The Ranch (a Texas doomsday cult), is driven by his faith that Alton is indeed their savior. Whose drive will have them more committed to this purpose? How will Alton’s mother respond to all this? Are Roy and Lucas prepared for what is next once they get to their destination? As you form an answer for one of these questions, Nichols sets up the next question that will have you closely paying attention once again.

    The cast of Midnight Special does a great job in letting the emotions of the film resonate with us as a subtle Shannon is surrounded by a great supporting cast, Kristen Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver, that reassure that the viewers feel all the themes and emotions Nichols throws at us.

    Cinematographer Adam Stone, who worked with Nichols on all his featured films, returns once again and does an amazing job with empty visual space. Stone and Nichols does a fabulous job using empty space to play with our emotions from speeding down a pitch-dark empty freeway to the spotless white space of the test room that Alton is held in. Composer David Wingo’s score gets us to the emotional pieces as the film has chunks of dialogue-free moments.

    You will walk away from Midnight Special with the idea that you have just seen visual storytelling at its best as scenes of a father doing whatever it takes to get his son to his destination will resonate with you. There are certain things that words just simply can’t properly describe such as fatherhood, faith and the pain of a sick child and Nichols understands that fully and uses visuals what words fail to do.

  • Watching a movie requires a certain amount of faith. You give yourself over to the dark, place yourself in the hands of a filmmaker who implicitly asks you to trust in the series of images and words presented before you and to have faith that your time and investment shall be rewarded. The writer-director Jeff Nichols merits that faith with his fourth feature, Midnight Special, a deeply satisfying blend of road movie, conspiracy thriller, Spielbergian sci-fi, and ode to fatherhood.

    It begins in a motel room with two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), childhood friends reunited after decades apart. They are on the run and in possession of 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). The boy is Roy’s son and he is no ordinary child. Why exactly does Alton wear tinted swimming goggles and noise-canceling headphones? Nichols suggests the boy may be ultra-sensitive to light and sound, but slowly reveals the cause to be something far more complicated and Alton as a figure to be viewed as both salvation and threat.

    For Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the leader of a Branch Davidian-like cult from which Roy and ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) broke away after being forced to surrender their son to Meyer, Alton is a prophet whose seemingly unintelligible ramblings and visions may be the secret to the cult’s redemption. For the FBI and relatively green NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), Alton is a danger to a national security, capable of decoding highly encrypted transmissions. When Alton pulls a government satellite out of orbit and crashes it over a gas station, the urgency to protect him intensifies for Ray, who is intent on keeping the ailing Alton alive to meet his destiny.

    Midnight Special is replete with beautiful and astonishing sequences, be it the satellite crash that resembles a meteor shower or the first instance where Alton’s eyes emit a fierce blue ray or even the numerous close-ups that hold the faces of Shannon, Dunst and Edgerton for the length of an impossibly held breath. If nothing else, Nichols conducts a master class in mood, expression and tense anticipation. The film may strongly recall Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but this is a work that manages to be something wholly different and original. One can revel in the religious overtones or the superhero allegory, but the story’s driving engine is the faith and the indefinable ingredients that comprise that faith.

    What, for example, evokes such devotion from Lucas for a boy he barely knows? Why is his reaction to protect rather than capture? Edgerton is very touching in the role; Driver, meanwhile, injects his unique brand of quirk into Sevier – note the sideways staccato shuffle he employs as he approaches Alton in one of the film’s standout scenes.

    Dunst is quietly sublime as a woman who understands that her own child may not belong to her. Lieberher is wonderfully natural and convincingly enigmatic as Alton, but the film belongs to Shannon. He is simply excellent as the intensely concentrated Roy, who understands that restoring Alton to his rightful place means losing his beloved son. Shannon’s unsentimental performance makes Roy’s sacrifice blisteringly heartbreaking and shows how fatherhood can be a type of faith. “I like worrying about you,” Roy tells Alton, “I’ll always worry about you. That’s the deal.”

    If the protracted climax disappoints or feels compromised, it’s mainly due to it being one of the few instances where we’re shown something that would have been better left to the imagination. The power of imagination is what has been driving this simple story all along and to suddenly abandon that during the film’s most important moment feels a sort of betrayal. Nevertheless, Nichols has fashioned a work so lovely and spellbinding that its faults can be forgiven.

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  • Midnight Special almost makes it but falls prey to the problems of the writer and director being the same person. Still it does handles suspense well if simply and is an entertaining time in the movie theater.
    Jeff Nichols fell behind as both a story teller and a director. The story is short and could have had more development of various character’s actions. It would have been nice to know why some of the characters are doing what they do occasionally. As a result of this there are several places where the scenes linger too long and characters I wanted to know more about were not developed and I had to be satisfied with what Nichols gave me. There is a problem with having too much information in your head but not getting it down on the screen.
    Michael Shannon plays the father, Roy. Roy is driven to protect his son and do whatever needs to be done to get the kid to a specific place on a specific day. There’s very little information given about this character, and, in the beginning, we think he’s a bad guy. Joel Edgerton plays Lucas, an old friend of Roy who has agreed to help him make his son safe. Part way through the film we find out what Lucas did for a living and that changes the motivations for the character for the rest of the movie. The son, Alton, is played by Jaeden Lieberher who does a very good job but isn’t asked to do all that much. These three are the core of the story and are consistent in their actions so even if you don’t have enough information to understand, the characters are believable.
    Supporting these characters in their quest is Kirsten Dunst playing Alton’s mother, Sarah. From the very first time Sarah is on screen you know she loves her son and will do anything for him. The odd man out is Paul Sevier played by Adam Driver. Sevier looks as if he shouldn’t be where he is but is so fascinated by it all that he can’t tear himself away. The fact that Paul’s one of the bad guys sort messes things up for Paul.
    When I saw Sam Shepard playing Calvin Meyer, one of those ministers of a cult who demands women dress as if it were 1880, has dozens of children from the various sisters, and is sending two guys out to find Alton and kill his father, you would think this Rev. Meyer is the bad guy. But he is disposed of quickly in an FBI sweep and we never see him again. His two henchmen fill in for him in their sporadic but dramatic appearances.
    I give Midnight Special 4 pairs of goggles out of 5. Don’t think, just roll with it and you’ll have a good time.

  • Billed as writer/director Jeff Nichols’ first venture into mainstream film-making and his first stab at a genre piece, Midnight Special still manages to keep things grounded and rugged despite its sci-fi credentials. Clearly a throw-back to the alien-among-us movies of the 1980’s, such as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Starman (1984) – movies Nichols no doubt grew up watching – there are shady government officials, a suspicious cult, a sympathetic young investigator, a protective father, and a young boy with some astonishing, otherworldly abilities. Yet there’s also the Southern setting, an unhurried pace and the presence of Michael Shannon, all key ingredients in the film-maker’s oeuvre that help Midnight Special avoid being yet another homage to a bygone era.

    The film begins rather frantically as two men, Roy (Shannon) and his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), escape some unknown threat in the middle of the night with a young boy, adorned with UV-blocking goggles, in the back seat. Their intentions are shady, and we soon learn that the FBI are hunting the men in the hope of rescuing the child, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who is clearly special in some unique way. Alton is Roy’s son, and it’s revealed that his father took him away from a shady cult led by the enigmatic Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), whose nightly sermons would consist of seemingly random numbers that were once spoken by prophetic Alton. As the curious investigator Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) tries to unravel the mystery of the boy and the reasons for his abduction, Roy and Lucas must dodge state troopers and gun-wielding cult members to deliver Alton to his excommunicated mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and prepare for the huge event that has been prophesied.

    For what is essentially a chase movie, Midnight Special moves incredibly slow at times. While the bursts of action or sudden violence that pepper the film are all the more exciting because of the shuffling pace, it can be a bit of slog at times, especially when the movie keeps you in the dark about a lot of which is going on. It very much reminded me of Nichols’s second film, Take Shelter (2011), in which Shannon’s troubled father’s possible descent into madness manifests itself in his obsession over building a bunker that would shield his family from whatever catastrophic event he foresees. While the mystery was one of the main aspects that helped make that movie incredibly memorable, it does somewhat take away some of the sense of wonder in Midnight Special, even though it would seem that Nichols chose to reveal little until the end to do just the opposite.

    Despite its pacing flaws, the film is still incredibly absorbing. The Southern setting is one I find oddly romantic, and Nichols is a master at immersing you in the world, something he did astonishingly well in the land of swamps and charismatic outlaws in 2012’s Matthew McConaughey-starring Mud. The world of fleapit motels, empty, neon-lit gas stations and tough, righteous men is the perfect fit for a story rooted in science-fiction. There’s something timeless about the setting, and this helps Midnight Special achieve its hat-tipping to the works of Spielberg, Carpenter et al. Nichols also does wonders with the film’s humble budget, creating a few standout set-pieces that work better than most CGI-overkill blockbusters. Yet at its heart, the film remains a family drama with the fatherly bond between Roy and Alton always front and centre, and Nichols has stated that it is very much his reaction to becoming a father. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea – I’m sure mainstream audiences will be put of by its leisurely pace – but Midnight Special is a rewarding experience if you stick with it.

    Rating: 4/5

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  • The actors/actresses speak in annoying monotones, the musical score is ominous, everything in frame takes itself way too seriously, and Mud’s Jeff Nichols creates such a dark atmosphere making it hard to tell what’s exactly going on. That’s the vibe I got from 2016’s Midnight Special (my latest review). In truth, “Special” is an overrated swipe of slight, sci-fi mumbo jumbo. The critics have seemed to embrace it. This one can’t. Give me the less cynical, less violent E.T. or 1984’s Starman as an acceptable opposition.

    For kicks-and-giggles, CCR’s beloved tune of the same name doesn’t make “Special” any more satisfying. The song is redone in the closing credits, made to be more solemn and made to be a laughable wink wink for the last hour and 51 minutes.

    Slow-moving yet edited prematurely with a decent enough cast (Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, and an unrecognizable Kirsten Dunst), Midnight Special doesn’t exactly move you. It’s a cold film, deemed strictly for the military front. Yeah there is some admirable storytelling and reasonable direction, but there’s literally no background on the characters and their bellicose motivations.

    Here’s the gist: I used “Special’s” wiki page to figure out the true plot workings and somewhat realized that this movie takes place in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. It’s about a boy (or I guess alien) who has some special, unworldly powers. His dad (Roy Tomlin played by Michael Shannon) is part of a religious cult and when the people there find out about the light coming from his son’s eyes (Alton played effectively by The Confirmation’s Jaeden Lieberher), well Roy escapes said cult with Alton and his friend, Lucas (played by Joel Edgerton who seems to be in everything these days). An amber alert is in effect as all kinds of authorities want to arrest the two men while capturing Alton to find out what really makes him tick. Ultimately, Alton has to get to a place where he can confront other extraterrestrial hosts and be the subject of a tumulus world event to occur. If it all sounds familiar, it is. If you think this thing trades decent production values for ho-hum, appreciable momentum, well it does. “Special” was released in March with its box office take being pretty weak (6.2 million worldwide). I don’t blame the average moviegoer whose word of mouth was obviously voiced.

    Stylish yet silly, well-intentioned yet overly dramatic, you can call Midnight Special Close Encounters of the “irrelevant” Kind. It didn’t quite “shine a light on me.” Rating: 2 stars.

    Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

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  • “You all have no clue of what you’re dealing with, do you?”

    Fascinating. Intriguing. Mysterious. Captivating. These are words that crossed my mind after watching this quirky SF. “Midnight Special” seemed to be nothing special. But at the same time it contains something special. The atmosphere of secrecy that is noticeably present from the beginning, creates an intensely long trip full of mystery and intrigue. That underlying tension will resonate for a long time until the final offensive deploys and all questions are being answered. But believe me, most of the time you’ll be sitting perplexed in front of your screen, while wondering what the hell is going on.

    The strength of the film is the way in which they reveal as little as possible. The story unfolds itself painfully slow. Roy (Michael “The Iceman” Shannon) and Lucas (Joel “Exodus: Gods and Kings” Edgerton) behave like thieves in the night while they drag the young boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from motel to motel. Apparently this is a kidnapping, as said on all the news channels. However, when you see how relaxed Alton undergoes all of this, it doesn’t look like a kidnapping. And certainly not as Roy appears to be the father of this strange boy, who’s reading his comics with a flashlight under his sheets and who’s wearing goggles constantly. The fact that the motel room is made completely sealed of from light by means of cardboard, will make you scratch your head for the first time already. Clearly those two adult guys would do anything to protect Alton and make sure he doesn’t fall into the hands of those who are following them.

    Seems like a whole group of people are interested in the boy. First, there’s a religious sect. They’ve constructed an entire religion around the boy with his special gifts. He’s a kind of savior for them who’d be handy during a future apocalypse. The FBI is also looking for Alton and deports the entire sect to a secluded sport-hall to interrogate them about him. Even the NSA sends an expert (Adam “Kylo Ren” Driver) because apparently the prophecies of Alton, which were used for sermons used by the cult leader (Sam Shepard), contain top secret government information. So you have a lot of enigmatic narratives that coalesce in an ingenious way into a combined endpoint.

    The positive side of “Midnight Special” is its purity. SF without too many glitzy technological marvels. A mix of sentimentality and no-nonsense fiction. Roy’s willingness to sacrifice himself for his son feels genuine. Roy and Luke are much like those apostles who were hanging out with Jezus. An irrefutable belief in Alton and a total submission to achieve a greater goal. The first part is also a display of the self-sacrifice and perseverance during their flight. Some magnificent acting and a touching father-son relationship. There’s a limited use of CGI. The characters of the key figures tell the story. I wouldn’t call it low budget entirely. Especially when seeing some well-known actors show up like Bill Camp, Paul Sparks and Kirsten Dunst. The end was a bit of a letdown. The quirky feeling of the movie is a bit ruined by the less successful “Tomorrowland”-like denouement. The peerless content and intriguing mystery that was created patiently, was instantly reduced to something superficial. A meaningless slip-up. All in all this was a whopper of a science-fiction that’ll be difficult to surpass. And certainly one that I’ll re-watch someday.

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