Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud) continues to cement himself as one of the most consistent filmmakers working today while taking a bold step forward with this tense and well-acted – if perhaps too slight for some tastes – sci-fi drama.
Roy (Michael Shannon) has fled a religious cult with his eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who harbours ambiguous yet evidently supernatural powers. The cult wants Alton back in order to secure their future in the wake of an apparently impending apocalypse, while the FBI chases him down for fear that he poses a national security risk. Aided by a childhood friend (Joel Edgerton) and Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), Roy and Alton must steer clear of enemies on all sides, as well as the curious pursuit of a genius NSA analyst (Adam Driver) who gets pulled into the fray.
Big budget thrills are not the order of the day here, but rather Midnight Special excels in moments of quiet intrigue and suspense, ahead of occasional bursts of thunderous violence. It is a film driven more by character than incident, as Nichols slow-bleeds a compelling enigma with well-placed flashes of revelation. There’s simply so much here to maintain viewer interest in even its most sedate moments; crisp cinematography from Nichols’ resident lenser Adam Stone, Julie Monroe’s pin-sharp editing, David Wingo’s entrancing score, and of course, all those performances.
Nichols’ good luck charm Shannon is as reliably excellent as ever, though it’s an ensemble-led effort all the way, with Edgerton and Lieberher helping lead the charge, while Dunst and Driver linger more around the periphery for the most part, though Driver does become an unexpected source of comic relief later on.
Though a pic of this style and order would surprise nobody if it ended on a frustratingly ambiguous note, Nichols smartly does deliver a degree of payoff to the tapestry he builds, and while still leaving plenty to ponder about, he does create a complete arc for his characters rather than a fashionably, stereotypically ambiguous indie non-climax. Mileage will likely vary on how satisfactory it all ultimately is, but as the saying goes, the journey is so often more important than the destination.
Midnight Special is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas April 8th