*This review was originally published at The Film Experience as part of the coverage of the 66th Berlinale.
With Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, Jeff Nichols has become one of the most intriguing, and divisive, American directors working today. His latest film, the unclassifiable Midnight Special, will no doubt continue the same trajectory. Starring his favourite actor Michael Shannon, along with Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst, this religious fable in the mold of science fiction is a crowd-pleaser that, despite a crucial directorial misstep, delivers a thoroughly riveting experience.
Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 8-year-old boy who is stolen by Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Edgerton) in the film’s tour de force opening sequence. Calvin Meyer (Sam Sheppard), the ringleader of a religious congregation doubling as a ranch, instructs his right hand men to look for the boy. Shortly thereafter, the FBI barge in to his commune to arrest all members for an investigation. The opening passages of the film are constructed as a series of cryptic expositions, gradually revealing the boy as an otherworldly presence, the moral guide of the ranch members and also privy to sensitive government information through his visions. The patterns of the boy’s behaviour are left to investigator Paul Sevier (a refreshingly comic Adam Driver) to decode. Thus, a three-way chase and run develops, wherein the government and the henchmen separately follow the two men holding the boy, and the trio rush to meet Sarah (Dunst) before the world comes to an end.
As in his previous features, Nichols proves his deft hand at delivering an intense thriller, constructing set pieces that never fail to take the audience by surprise. The gravity of a cathartic spiritual experience is conveyed with such earnest conviction that, even despite the absence of profundity or transcendence in the film’s take on religious belief, overwhelms the audience with its sheer force. That religiosity is juxtaposed with the personal will of the protagonist against his helplessness in a world on the verge of destruction provides both a critique of faith and an affirmation of its significance.
Midnight Special’s hybrid of genres veers unfortunately close to satire near the finale, when the camera reveals the powerful visions seen by Alton to the audience, thus robbing the film of the sense of awe and mystery that lends the religious experience its gravitas. Even so, the film is so gripping and bursts with such energy that it is hard to begrudge Nichols his aesthetic indulgence. Midnight Special is a sensational thriller that will bring more mainstream audiences on board with the director’s cinema.