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14 Apr 2016

Twilight Tribute? Director Jeff Nichols Wows Yet Again With 'Midnight Special'

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A scene from Midnight Special. A scene from Midnight Special.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) has named his latest film—about a boy with special powers running from a Texas cult—Midnight Special.

The name alone is a stroke of genius. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover of “Midnight Special” was featured in Twilight Zone: The Movie back in 1983. Whenever I hear that song, or even see the title, I am reminded of that song and movie, which both hold a special place in my film-going heart. Because of all of this, I walked into Midnight Special in an ’80s sort of mood. Whether or not Nichols named his film with Twilight Zone in mind doesn’t really matter. The end result had me thinking of Dan Aykroyd attacking Albert Brooks in a parked car at night on a country road.

Midnight Special, the movie, feels like a product of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time when the likes of Spielberg and Scorsese were going full-throttle and turning out some of their best stuff. It also works like a really cool episode of The Twilight Zone.

Other filmmakers, like J.J. Abrams with his muddled Super 8, have tried to evoke a Spielberg vibe and wound up ripping him off. Here, Nichols has made a film that is an interesting homage to Spielberg—while still coming off as smart and original. It’s also a very entertaining journey.

Michael Shannon (who has appeared in all of Nichols’ films) plays Roy, father to young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a mysterious boy who must wear goggles all the time due to fits during which his eyes shoot out blinding light. He has the power to down satellites, channel radio broadcasts and transmit military secrets. So, yeah, the government is after him—and the Texas cult he grew up within sees him as some sort of prophet.

Roy takes Alton away from the cult (led by the forever-haggard Sam Shepard) and is racing toward some undisclosed location—because he knows his boy is important, and that his mystery meeting is important. Nichols cleverly keeps much of his movie shrouded in mystery, with some of questions never getting clear-cut answers. Movies that spell everything out for you can be very boring.

The film has elements of Duel, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the Spielberg front, along with the mystery and wonder of the best Twilight Zone episodes. It also has the look and feel of some of Clint Eastwood’s best offerings, the dramatic intensity of Scorsese films, and some of the better aspects of last year’s poorly received Tomorrowland. Yet it feels very original.

Shannon is typically strong as the worried yet emotionally closed-off father who doesn’t have all of the answers, but will do everything he can to help his son. Joel Edgerton gives his best performance to date as Lucas (yep, a George Lucas homage), a former state trooper along for the ride.

Kirsten Dunst plays Alton’s mysterious birth mother. There’s also Adam Driver as the sympathetic government guy (think Peter Coyote in E.T.) in full nerd mode, doing much to make viewers forget that sinister villain he played in that little film that came out late last year.

Nichols is, quite simply, one of the finest directors making movies today. If you haven’t seen Take Shelter or Mud, get on it. This film is perhaps a notch below those two movies, but that’s not saying it isn’t an entertaining and satisfying experience. That’s just saying he’s made three great movies.

Some people have complained that Nichols botches his films in the third act. That’s a bunch of crap. The third acts in his films are always exciting or mind-blowing, and this one is no exception. 

Midnight Special is an example of a great director stretching his wings and hitting his marks impressively. It’s also the first of two Nichols movies (the other being Loving, also starring Edgerton and Shannon) that will be released this year. In other words, this is a movie year about which you should be excited.

Midnight Special is now playing at the Cinémas Palme D’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

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