Midnight Special opens with a bang. Two men speeding down quiet country roads in the dead of night, with a young kid in the back reading comic books by torchlight and wearing strange goggles on his head. It’s the sort of confident introduction makes a cult classic, and Jeff Nichol’s latest has the potential to become just that.
Roy (Shannon) has just broken his eight-year-old son, Alton (Lieberher), out of a religious cult in rural Texas, now on the on the road with his childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton), a state trooper gone rogue. They have to get Alton to an unknown location on a specific date for an other-worldly event but that’s all we’re told, and with a number of strange happenings along the way, it’s sure not going to be easy.
On their tail is cult leader, Calvin Meyer (Shepard), or moreover his two goons played by the brilliant Bill Camp and Scott Haze, willing to stop at nothing to get him back. While back at the ranch, expert Paul Sevier interviews the cult about Alton and discovers the boy might have supernatural powers, so the FBI too join the chase.
Sci-fi is a hard nut to crack, but in his first studio picture, lauded indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols has made one of the most refreshingly original thrillers in recently memory. Nichols is clearly influenced by classics like E.T., but Midnight Special creates such iconic imagery, he makes it his own. Starting off with just three people on the run and only teasing the wider story, Nichols invests the audience in the characters before the wild goose chase really kicks off. The three plot strands share the limelight as more is slowly revealed about Alton’s powers, escalating to a series of thrilling climaxes, shoot outs and car chases.
As on Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, Nichols’ genius is setting is all against wholly relatable characters. From Shannon’s brooding father, to Driver’s quirky FBI specialist, to Camp’s devilish cult hitman, and of course young actor Jaeden Lieberher as Alton, the ensemble cast translate Nichol’s vision with passion and verve, sucking you in with such ease.
Genre filmmaking is usually hard but Jeff Nichols makes it look easy. This is an encapsulating, original and thrilling film, inspired by classics but with a personality that is wholly its own. It seems Jeff Nichols can put no foot wrong, and long may it continue.