Film Review: Midnight Special

by Carrie Kahn on April 1, 2016

The boy is Special, and so is the film

Roy (Michael Shannon, l.) will do anything to protect his very special son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).

Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) continues his collaboration with the terrific actor Michael Shannon to great effect in his utterly engaging new science fiction film Midnight Special. Unlike another film by a well known writer/director that opened today, Nichols’s film grips you from its opening minute and keeps you enraptured for its nearly two hour run time. A film that pays homage to others of its genre while still managing to be totally unique, Midnight Special is well worth your box office dollars.

Nichols parses out his story slowly, allowing the viewer to piece together what’s going on without being hit over the head by exposition. This slow unraveling of the plot helps create an overarching, palpable sense of edginess and tension. As the film opens, we immediately hear a television voiceover announcing an Amber Alert: eight-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent) has been kidnapped from his adoptive parents’ ranch in Texas. What becomes clear to us soon enough, though, is that the kidnappers are actually Alton’s loving biological father Roy (Shannon, just excellent) and Roy’s childhood best friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). As seen in his previous films, Nichols has a penchant for father-son stories, and his newest is no exception.

The what and the why of Roy’s taking of Alton is best left for the viewer to discover; this is a film where the less the viewer knows going in, the better. Just know that while the somewhat cryptic initial storytelling may be frustrating at first, you will be rewarded for sticking with it and following along closely; all plot details will be revealed eventually, a few well-placed red herrings notwithstanding.

Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) worries about her son Alton (Jaden ).

Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) worries about her son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).

All you really need to know going in is that Alton is no ordinary eight-year-old boy. Roy has whisked Alton from a religious cult to which Roy and Alton’s biological mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) once belonged. The head of the cult, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard, who is not on screen enough these days), adopted Alton, and the cult members believe he might be some sort of savior.

Meanwhile, the Government with a capital G wants to get a hold of Alton for its own purposes, which means that Roy, Lucas, and Sarah are faced with outrunning and outsmarting two competing groups desperate for Alton. And our trio of heroes has their own agenda for the boy.

To say more would spoil the fun and the intensity of what is essentially a classic southern road trip movie combined with elements of revered sci-fi films like ET, Starman, Close Encounters, and even Firestarter. As he did in Mud and Take Shelter, Nichols expertly paces his story to build to a slow burn, allowing his themes and characters to expose themselves to us indelibly and satisfyingly.

NSA Agent Paul (Adam Driver, l.) talks with young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).

Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton are all excellent, bringing layers of anxiety and emotion to demanding roles and sparse yet sharp dialogue. Adam Driver, too, hits all the right notes of curiosity, compassion, and empathy in his portrayal of an NSA communications expert intrigued by both scientific puzzles and by Alton himself. And as Alton, young Jaeden Lieberher seems wise beyond his years, but his portrayal is never grating, and, as he demonstrated in 2014’s St. Vincent, he is more than capable of holding his own against heavyweights like Shannon.

By the film’s end, you may have more questions than are answered by Nichols’s taut screenplay, but don’t overthink the plot too much. Ultimately, this picture succeeds so exceedingly well on two different levels – as both a fresh, riveting, sci-fi suspense thriller, and, perhaps even more so, as a moving story of the power and grace of parental love – that you’ll be willing to forgive any confusing plot holes. Just sit back and let yourself discover the mystery of Alton Meyer; he won’t let you down.


Midnight Special opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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