'Midnight Special' Finds Jeff Nichols Putting On His Steven Spielberg Hat And It Looks Really Good On Him [SXSW Review]

If Steven Spielberg was born and raised in Texas, he could have made Midnight Special. But he wasn't and he didn't, so the task fell to Jeff Nichols.

While this is undeniably the work of the same filmmaker who made Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, his particular skill set is being utilized in service of a very different kind of story. Midnight Special is a science fiction road movie that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve while boldly treading into new territory. This is Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a southern drawl, Starman with a lived-in sensibility, and, most of all, it is one of the most stunning original and humane genre films to arrive in a long time.

Nichols (who also penned the script) begins in media res. Alton Meyer has been abducted. The police are closing in. The boy's adoptive father, the leader of an isolated religious compound, is prepared to take matters into their own hands. The federal government knows that there's something special about this kid. And most importantly, the two men who are transporting this boy across the American south know that he is worth protecting, and worth killing for, if necessary. Because he is unique. And because he can do great and terrible things. And one of the "abductors" is his father.

To say more about the plot of Midnight Special would do the film a disservice. Nichols trusts his audience enough to throw them into the action without wasting any time, refusing to bog down his story with exposition or easy answers. The result is a film that places us on the edge of a grand mystery that cannot be fully explained – we can only watch and ponder alongside the characters themselves. There is almost no exposition here. Nichols wants you to watch and absorb and arrive at your own conclusion.

This mystery is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. The Spielberg comparisons, the Amblin comparison, are easy to make, but Nichols proves himself adept at creating moments of wonder that leave characters awestruck, their mouths hanging open in amazement. Midnight Special is filled with visual effects, but it is the cast who sells them. It is one thing to show us something incredible, but it is another thing altogether to let the sight render a character speechless, to communicate genuine awe through performance. He allows his characters to be mesmerized and, in turn, we are allowed to be mesmerized alongside them.

These moments of awe land because the film, and its performances, are otherwise so low-key and naturalistic. As the father of abducted boy, Michael Shannon (teaming up with Nichols for the fourth time) plays a man of few words, a father who has thrown away his life to ensure the safety and future of his gifted son. Shannon has steely determination down to a science, but seeing that unnerving dedication utilized to showcase pure, unbreakable, unmovable love and affection is profoundly moving. Joel Edgerton, as the best friend who gets roped into the mission, is an incredible foil, our avatar in this insane situation who sells every extraordinary event with warmth and humor. Hollywood often doesn't know what to do with Edgerton, but Nichols has weaponized his natural, everyman charisma.

The rest of the cast delivers, with Kirsten Dunst doing fine work as Alton's mother and Adam Driver delivering egghead likability as a government researcher on the fringe of the adventure. The film's secret weapon is young Jaeden Lieberher, who finds the balance between the mysterious intelligence lurking within him and his youthful exterior. It's easy to see Lieberher following in the path of Mud star Tye Sheridan. Few directors cast and direct young performers as well as Nichols.

Midnight Special is a film about ordinary men and women who rise to the occasion in an incredible situation. It's about parents who literally dedicate their lives to the security of their child, even if it means throwing their own futures to the wind. There's a homespun quality to the storytelling, a southern sensibility that takes its time without ever slowing down. The devil is in the details. David Wingo's score, which gracefully bounces between electronic menace and soul-stirring piano, sets the tone. Sit back. Relax. It's time for a tale.

But above all, Midnight Special fun. It's a good time, a road trip adventure that teases big science fiction ideas and delivers in ways you do not see coming. Nichols hasn't made a drama with genre qualities – he's made a bonafide sci-fi movie that builds a fascinating world. While that world is hidden behind a door, Nichols offers a glimpse through the peephole. We are only allowed to see so much. Like his characters, we are only human. And we're allowed to be amazed.

9.5 out of 10