It’s a brilliant exercise in how to grab an audience’s attention from the first frame and hold it in a vice-like grip, right through to the end. Midnight Special does so by undermining our expectations of what sort of film it is, re-inventing itself constantly, leading us down unexpected but always intriguing narrative pathways.
It comes from the American writer-director Jeff Nichols, whose previous films, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, share not only the American south as a location, but also a sense that there’s more going on in them than they initially indicate. They’re not exactly enigmatic, but they’re certainly ambiguous.
Informally speaking, Nichols is half of a double act: all his films star Michael Shannon, a supremely watchable actor. Tall and rangy with a high forehead, a bug-eyed stare and a Desperate Dan jaw, Shannon’s default expression tends to be one of anxious terror. He’s a safe pair of hands to play an Everyman in an emergency.
The first few minutes of Midnight Special are as gripping as any thriller I’ve seen in recent years. From a TV in a cheap motel room, we hear newscasters announcing a missing child alert. They name Roy Tomlin (Shannon) as the kidnapper of Alton Meyer, (Jaden Lieberher) an eight-year-old boy. And then we see man and boy in that room, clearly at ease around each other. It’s apparent there’s more to this ‘abduction’ than meets the eye; Roy turns out to be Alton’s natural father.
Now they’ve been identified on TV, they decide to hit the road; they’re driven by Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a friend of Roy’s, and race into the night, headlights off. It’s a brilliant, tense sequence, while offering no clues about what’s to come.
I won’t be offering any spoilers here, but suffice to say two different organisations are chasing Roy and Alton; one is a religious cult, headed by a charismatic preacher named Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), and the other is the FBI. It becomes clear that it’s the boy they’re after, and just as clearly that the boy possesses strange but unspecified gifts. Put it this way: what begins like a taut, real-life thriller edges into science-fiction territory.
Nichols isn’t a showy film-maker, but he certainly knows how to keep a story moving along at a formidable pace. Yet he somehow finds time to highlight other themes in this story – one of them being parental love and responsibility, demonstrated both by Shannon and by Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother.
The acting is excellent throughout: young Lieberher (the best thing about the otherwise unremarkable Bill Murray film St. Vincent) has a great future, while Adam Driver (a likable actor who seems to be in half the films coming out of America these days) does a nice quizzical turn as a National Security Agency analyst helping to track the boy down.
There’s enough material here for a dozen decent films, but Nichols pulls it all together deftly, leaving us much to ponder and discuss after the fact. He’s fast becoming one of the great directors of our time.
DVD: The Night Manager
Feeling slightly out of it because everyone you know has been talking about little else but The Night Manager, the superlative six-part drama series on BBC? And you’ve somehow missed it?
Help is at hand. It’s already available on DVD.
The Night Manager, adapted imaginatively from John Le Carré’s hitherto underrated 1993 novel, is a tour de force – a terrific tale of intelligence officers, shady arms deals, all played out in exotic, easy-on-the eye locales.
Tom Hiddleston is in the title role as Jonathan Pine, an ex-soldier torn between good and evil, action and inaction. Hugh Laurie, in a transformative role, is Roper, a tycoon and arms dealer, described as “the worst man in the world.” And Olivia Colman comes close to stealing the show as a principled intelligence officer.
Compulsively watchable, it’s a complete triumph.
(On DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.)
Related: Read our TV critic's review of The Night Manager