What makes you say that?
I believe it.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing Jeff Nichols’ latest film for quite a while now and I finally got to it and it was very much worth the wait. It’s the story of a boy with strange powers and the journey he takes with his father in order to escape both the federal government and a strange, apocalyptic cult. It sounds like a thriller and it is, but Nichols has too much artistry to make a pure genre piece. This functions wonderfully as a sort of sci-fi thriller; it’s been compared to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and it has a lot of things in common with that film: a palpable atmosphere, a gripping sense of paranoia and the desire to achieve transcendent awe. Where Close Encounters, however, was a movie about a man sacrificing his family in order to answer a paranormal call, Midnight Special is about a man with a higher moral calling: to sacrifice everything for his family.
The performances here are astonishing. Michael Shannon, always good, gives an above average performance here as the father. Jaeden Lieberher is fresh from a really fine performance in The Confirmation with Clive Owen, another father-son film, and he’s even better here as this very abnormal, occasionally frightening child. Joel Edgerton gives another in a line of really amazingly good performances as a taciturn friend of Shannon’s, locked down and minimal. And both Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst are, I think, career best here as a nebbish NSA analyst and the mother of the child. I think that Nichols has a real gift for getting performances tamped down and interior; you feel like a lot of his direction here was just telling his actors to go smaller on the exterior and bigger on the interior. I think this really helps create this feeling of normalcy, of people who aren’t always overt about their emotions, who say little and reveal less. I think this worked particularly well with Driver, an actor I’ve always liked, but an actor driven in many ways by exterior tics. This is as quiet and minimal as I’ve ever seen Driver and there’s a depth to his performance here that I don’t think I’ve seen in any of his other performances. And the ensemble below those main characters is stellar as well. Sam Shepard has a very small but memorable role. Paul Sparks has surprising gravitas as an FBI agent. Bill Camp & Scott Haze are perfect as a pair of creepy and menacing cult members.
The film just has a really strong emotional drive and it just works really well. It’s a wonderful mixture of really suspenseful scenes, surprising twists, highly evocative emotional beats and great performances. It’s a great film, no question, that has a lot of thematic stuff going on under the surface; it’s about fatherhood, loneliness, sacrifice, a lot of things. It’s sharply written as a genre piece and as a character based drama. The ending is sure to be controversial, but it gave me a couple of gasp-inducing moments. It’s really a must-see and try to go in knowing as little as possible. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Nichols has another triumph with this astoundingly well-acted film, a sci-fi thriller with a strong emotional core; an absolute must-see. 4 stars.