Following Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols continues his incredible run of form with this smart and sensitive homage to Eighties sci-fi classics. With so many filmmakers merrily lifting from the gloomier work of John Carpenter, it’s refreshing to see a movie latch on to Starman’s sense of wonder, as well as its chase-movie structure.
The target of this manhunt is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a child with special powers who has been abducted by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) from the religious commune that has been treating him as a miracle. Roy needs to get him to a certain location in three days, but can they evade the fanatics and government forces while keeping Alton alive?
As much as Midnight Special lifts from Carpenter and Spielberg, it’s absolutely a Jeff Nichols film. He displays incredible confidence as the film jumps right in, trusting the viewer to keep up. That lack of condescension is both bracing and refreshing, as Nichols relies upon his cast to convey the characters’ histories with glances and gestures while keeping the plot moving. It’s all so grounded that it’s almost easy to forget how invested you’ve become in their journey, until Nichols puts them in jeopardy.
A big part of that is obviously due to the performances. Shannon is superb as the driven father, channelling that unpredictable intensity into a desperate protectiveness, while Joel Edgerton quietly steals the film as Roy’s deceptively big-hearted driver/muscle. Kirsten Dunst doesn’t appear until roughly halfway, but completes the family unit beautifully, and Adam Driver brings a nice sense of humour and awe to his NSA scientist who becomes the de facto Alton Meyer expert.
Nichols embraces the structural simplicity of the road movie, with the pursuing forces and Alton’s health acting as the ticking clock. Teasing hints are dropped about Alton’s powers, and the fragments of it we witness are incredible. Somehow, Nichols has managed to combine that Spielbergian feel of something magical we’ll never quite understand with a family story that is utterly involving and moving. This is something special.