The Quarantine Stream: 'Midnight Special' is an Underrated Gem

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: Midnight Special

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: A young boy with special powers goes on the run with his father, pursued by both the government and a religious cult.

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Practically no one saw Midnight Special in theaters, even though it’s a wonderful genre exercise that has a cast that includes Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver. Now’s your chance to see what you’ve been missing!

Jeff Nichols was just announced as the director of the third A Quiet Place film, which caused some people to ask: Who is Jeff Nichols? Nichols is not exactly a “name director,” but he’s turned out consistently great little genre movies. Like a kind of indie Spielberg, he crafts stories that blend action, sci-fi, and horror with a personal, down-to-earth element.

Midnight Special is Spielbergian in themes, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind crossed with E.T., with a little Superman-like mythology thrown in for good measure. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a young boy with special powers. This makes him a target of both the government and a religious cult that he grew up in. Trying to protect the boy from both factions, Alton’s father Roy (Michael Shannon) hits the road with Alton, with both the government and the cult in hot pursuit.

This allows Shannon to play something he doesn’t get to play too often – a nice guy. Shannon, who is inherently intense and kind of intimidating, is often cast as malevolent figures. But here, he’s a protector. And the clumsy-yet-warm way he watches out for Alton is genuinely touching. There’s a moment where son tells father not to worry so much about him, to which Shannon replies: “I’m always going to worry about you; that’s the deal.” It’s such a sweet little scene, and Shannon sells it perfectly.

Midnight Special is a slow-burn. Yes, this is a chase movie, but don’t expect a lot of action – although there are more than a few effects-driven moments. But Nichols isn’t interested in spectacle. Instead, he cares about character – and mystery. The film plays its cards close to its chest, perhaps to a fault – it doesn’t quite stick the big landing, even though it comes close.

Nichols surrounds Shannon and Lieberher with great performers. Joel Edgerton is great as someone helping father and son with their escape. A very young-looking Adam Driver turns up as an NSA employee who turns out to be not all bad. Kirsten Dunst arrives late in the film as Alton’s mom. The late, great Sam Shepard and character actor extraordinaire Bill Camp are members of the cult trying to track Alton down. Paul Sparks is an FBI Agent. All of these people turn in solid work here. It’s quite subtle, work, too – there aren’t big speechy, showy moments.

If you’re ready to dive into Nichols’ filmography, this is a great place to start. Then go seek out titles like Take ShelterMud, and the recent Loving. Afterward you’ll start to realize he’s one of the best unsung directors working right now.

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