Midnight Special, which expands to Kansas City theaters this weekend, moves like a bullet train. It’s at full speed out of the gate: a newscast announces an Amber Alert, and Roy (Michael Shannon, a reservoir of brutish empathy) is the subject of a statewide manhunt for kidnapping 10-year-old Alton. Roy has a partner who appears adept with firearms and a police scanner. The boy, fully cooperative, wears swimming goggles and the kind of earmuffs you’d find on a Tarmac or a shooting range. In the middle of the night, they hurry out of their motel room and into a rusted out ’72 Chevelle. We barely have our bearings when they blitz the interstate topping 90. The FBI and a Branch Davidian-like cult join the chase; and wherever they’re all headed, we’re along for the ride.
To say anything more would sabotage the movie’s expert design: it’s engineered to provide only the most basic clues to what’s happening and why. But the real surprise is how gracefully it’s executed. Midnight Special’s writer-director is Jeff Nichols; since 2007, he’s been quietly amassing a body of work that puts him among the best American filmmakers. He’s only in his late 30s, but you’d almost never guess it: his unaffectedly compassionate and offhanded insight into the contemporary American Midwest suggests someone who’s spent decades refining his craft. (He was born and raised in Arkansas.)
And while a few sequences in 2011’s Take Shelter hinted at a grasp of spontaneity—its dreams (or were they visions?) come to mind—nothing he’s done has suggested the sustained kineticism and effortless command of expectation and payoff on display here. Assembled like a Swiss watch, Midnight Special preternaturally understands the mechanics of storytelling and how to parcel information in such a way that’s neither manipulative nor cloying. Even a whiff of self-awareness would derail it into the glib hucksterism of J.J. Abrams, who similarly mined early Spielberg in Super 8 without that director’s command of narrative reward. But Nicols has it, and Midnight Special is so fiercely engaging—so full of setups and reveals—that we fall into its rhythm without protest, eager to know more. By the time the movie veers into the supernatural, its pleasures are so effortlessly transfixing that we don’t groan but perk up: in this movie’s hands, anything’s possible. Like a perfectly executed magic trick, everything is a diversion. Even the small-scale start is a ruse: this is a big movie with big set pieces that deliver big surprises.
Take Shelter was deliberate and tenebrous, and a large portion of its success rested on its haunting ambiguity. But Midnight Special can’t afford that kind of inaccessibility: while it may be a puzzle, any missing pieces would obscure the picture. That may prove less satisfying in the long run; but while it’s chugging along, Midnight Special is an entrancing whirl of master craftsmanship. It’s one hell of a ride and one of the most joyful moviegoing experiences in recent memory. Hold onto your butts.
Midnight Special. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Starring Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, and Kirsten Dunst. Distributed by Warner Bros. Expands to Kansas City on April 8th.