2016 is proving to be the year of Michael Shannon. That’s not to say that 2015 wasn’t his year, or 2011, or hopefully 2054, but this year we’re getting our fair share of Shannonness. At Sundance they screened Complete Unknown and Frank & Lola on back-to-back nights, while his character of Zod returns as a corpse in Batman v Superman. This after The Night Before bowed last holiday season, Freeheld played TIFF in September, and there’s even a doc playing soon called Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John which, while having nothing to do with the actor, still makes this part of the zeitgeist.
In Midnight Special Shannon once again teams up with Jeff Nichols, the director who helped shaped several of Michael’s most powerful performances in Shotgun Stories, Mud and Take Shelter. Midnight Special bowed at Berlin, and as a studio film from Warner it feels very much like a throwback to when the majors would back the likes of Close Encounters, sci-fi with intelligence, a bit of darkness and a lot of wonder.
Nichols’ script is wide ranging and pretty fascinating in terms of construction, and as someone who knew quite literally nothing about it save for Shannon’s inclusion I was riveted as the film when on, enjoying the many twists and turns that take place. I think this is the ideal way to experience the work, riding along with the narrative rather than trying to outguess what’s taking place.
For those less keen on the surprise the film focusses on a remarkable young boy, his father that’s abducted him from a religious enclave, and members of the U.S. Government that are on the hunt as well. Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton provide some truly compelling turns in their respective roles, each providing a unique facet to the storyline. Yet it’s Shannon, paired with young Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, Aloha), who truly drives the film forward.
Epic poems could be written about the pleasures of watching a Shannon character slowly lose his cool, and it’s this kinetic potential behind many of his great roles that truly makes him such a pleasure to watch. This film provides a unique tableau to showcase those gifts, making the rage and brutality tied to paternalism as well as a sense of awe and destiny.
In some ways the film echoes the slew of other origin stories that litter the comic book landscape, but here Nichols and his team create a far more adult look at the ramifications of great power. It’s an ideas movie mixed with spectacle, and while the final act requires leaps of disbelief (as well as some patience with the pacing) but the film provides quite a thrilling ride overall.
Part road trip film, part heist movie, part sci-fi myth, Midnight Special manages for the most part to keep all these balls up in the air while remaining compelling. It’s a story that draws you in with characters you care about brought to life by some exceptional performances.
Jeff Nichols makes you believe in what you’re seeing, trust the rules that the film sets out, and accept the possibility of these events, as preposterous as they may seem when you leave the theatre.