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Midnight Special Movie Review

Midnight Special Blu-ray cover art
Midnight Special is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray.

Midnight Special (2016) movie poster Midnight Special

Theatrical Release: March 18, 2016 / Running Time: 111 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon (Roy Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton Meyer), Adam Driver (Paul Sevier), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Sam Shepard (Calvin Meyer), Paul Sparks (Agent Miller), David Jensen (Elden)

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The films of writer-director Jeff Nichols -- Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2013) -- have drawn increasing acclaim and attention. Nichols' fourth feature at the helm, Midnight Special, is his biggest yet and has potential to further grow his following. Midnight differs from Nichols' past efforts in striking ways:
it was produced and shrouded in secrecy, has the backing of a major studio in Warner Bros. Pictures, is primarily classified as science fiction, and moves closer to shedding the director's "low budget" with an $18 million price tag. At the same time, the film upholds the director's trademarks with a cast that includes Michael Shannon, settings of southern flyover country, and methodical storytelling that may not entirely win over the masses. With that in mind, Warner opened this PG-13 film two weeks ago in five New York and Los Angeles theaters and will slowly expand it over the next few weeks, should demand be sustained.

Midnight Special takes its time establishing its premise. An 8-year-old boy with UV-blocking swim goggles is in the custody of two suspicious men. Television news reports the boy, Alton Meyer (St. Vincent's Jaeden Lieberher), as being abducted. His guardians, Roy Tomlin (Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are certainly on the run. Their intentions are vague. So too is the connection of a cult known as the Ranch, whose leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), Alton's adoptive father, announces seemingly random series of numbers as part of his sermons to an attentive night congregation.

In Jeff Nichols' "Midnight Special", Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) protect gifted youth Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) while on the run.

The service is descended upon by FBI agents with vested interest in the whereabouts of the boy, who is known to possess some unusual powers. We're mostly kept in the dark regarding the nature of those powers, knowing only that they involve Alton's sometimes glowing eyes and that Roy, the boy's biological father, and Lucas will go to great lengths to protect them, blocking out sunlight with cardboard taped to windows.

An analyst (Adam Driver) leads the FBI pursuit, while Roy, Lucas, and the boy lay low and visit the boy's mother (Kirsten Dunst), trying to keep him alive for the few days until he is to fulfill a prophecy at an assigned set of coordinates.

Midnight Special looks and feels like a movie from a different era. It is set in the present day, as a Nancy Grace sighting, dates, and news Twitter references make clear. But there are also pay phones, old cars, police scanners, long outdated fashions, and a general lack of technological gadgetry. You could easily liken the film to those from the '80s, like Starman and D.A.R.Y.L., ones that the 37-year-old Nichols and much of his principal cast would have grown up with. At the same time, the film plays more as timeless than as a throwback.

Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) can make blinding light with his eyes and hands.

Nichols is not entirely at ease here. There is a lack of energy most of the time, which you notice in the few scenes where the film really bursts to life, including a brief chase and an arresting exchange. The whole cult angle disconcertingly goes nowhere. Most viewers wouldn't immediately classify this as sci-fi.
Despite the somewhat significant budget, the backing of Warner, and the genre-esque thematic material, this doesn't really feel like Nichols' first mainstream play. Then again, neither did Mud and that Matthew McConaughey film grossed an exceptional $22 million from under 1,000 theaters. Midnight Special has a long way to go before reaching those heights, but it's already nearly halfway to $1 million after two weeks at only five locations.

Though not as unanimously approving as they were of Mud, critics have been receptive to Nichols' fourth film, while acknowledging this won't be the typical multiplex moviegoer's cup of tea. It won't be, but cineastes with patience who are appreciative of something a little out of the ordinary should enjoy this well-acted, well-crafted tale in spite of its belabored pacing, understated tone, and meandering storytelling.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: 10 Cloverfield Lane Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Zootopia
Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols: Take Shelter
Joel Edgerton: Black Mass Animal Kingdom The Great Gatsby Zero Dark Thirty The Odd Life of Timothy Green
Michael Shannon: 99 Homes Man of Steel Revolutionary Road My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Jaeden Lieberher: St. Vincent | Kirsten Dunst: Spider-Man | Adam Driver: Frances Ha Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Tomorrowland Flight of the Navigator Ex Machina Men in Black Safety Not Guaranteed

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Reviewed April 1, 2016.

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