ET with menace

A father and son go on the run, pursued by the government and a cult drawn to child’s special powers. There’s an unmistakeable touch of Speilberg about Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller Midnight Special

Kim Taylor-Foster


Kim Taylor-Foster

ET with menace

Midnight Special (12A)
Running time 1hr 52 min
Rating ***

ACTOR Michael Shannon and director Jeff Nichols have a symbiotic relationship. You might call the enigmatic screen star his muse – he’s appeared in every one of Nichols’ four features to date, and will also appear in his fifth. What he brings is something that arguably no other actor can impart. His intensity and indefinable magnetism are integral to the Mud and Take Shelter director’s latest – a minimal science fiction chase thriller that’s moody in tone and ambiguous in meaning. Nichols assembles his story with an unravelling-mystery structure, but not only is he economical with his storytelling, he also holds back on character revelations – back story and all. Adding to the hypnotic intrigue and muted sullenness, this approach means Nichols is in danger of withholding the life from his characters, which can be frustrating in an arena where we’re used to overdosing on exposition.

Midnight Special is basically ET – a grittier, more menacing version, mind. It starts with news stories of a little boy (Jaeden Lieberher) having apparently been snatched; we see him holed up in a darkened motel room with two men. One of these men (Michael Shannon) is his father. It’s unclear who the other (Joel Edgerton) is. It soon becomes apparent, however, that all is not as it seems and that there’s something unusual about this little boy. It emerges that they’re on the run, not only from the religious cult they were involved with but also from the FBI. A race against time ensues, with the trio hooking up with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) to get the boy to a certain location at a particular time, all the while with nefarious individuals hot on their tails.
There’s an unmistakeable touch of Spielberg in Midnight Special, not only in the ET similarities but also in its parallels with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the director’s focus on people. Although back stories aren’t explicitly filled out, there’s something very real and everyday about each of the main characters that gives them an unspoken roundness.

There’s plenty to read into this film if you’re prepared to work; it has lots to say, albeit in whispers. Moments of brutality are a sucker punch amid the film’s more frequent low-key, mundane elements, which is jarring and wincingly powerful. Nichols says that Midnight Special is the film he wanted to make, despite it being a studio movie. To know that he hasn’t compromised – a Hollywood rarity – should be enough to make you want to see this latest project from a promising talent.

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