Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” is an ambitious amalgamation of different genres and styles of film. It’s constantly changing shape and evolving, making it difficult for the viewer to determine where its heading. The movie is mainly grounded in the mundane here and now, though it eventually pivots towards epic, awe-inspiring Sci fi. It’s a father-son drama and an “on-the-run-from-the-government” thriller. It’s a family friendly adventure flick with the same sense of mystery, wonder and excitement found in early Spielberg (think especially of “E.T. and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). It’s faith based but not in a heavy-handed, patronizing or even scathing way. In fact the faith aspect doesn’t have to do with a particular religion, but more that there are things in our world and the universe that are beyond our understanding and can’t be explained logically.
That sounds like a lot for one movie, and it is, but Nichols manages to weave all those ingredients (for the most part) into a cohesive narrative. It helps that he uses the road-trip/quest structuring device, which keeps the film moving at a snappy (but not too snappy) speed and from meandering too far off track. The characters are always on the move; they know where they need to go and what their objective is, although the audience doesn’t always know. More importantly, Nichols keeps the picture’s focus primarily on the father-son drama; their relationship is the guiding force through this wild, tense and emotionally poignant adventure.
“Midnight Special” gets going right away, beginning in aftermath of a child kidnapping. The two kidnappers Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are holed up in a motel with the kid, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Roy and Lucas are dangerous and determined. Later, on the road, Lucas shoots and kills a state trooper. Getting caught and giving up the boy are the last things on their mind. We find out that Roy is Alton’s father and he’s taken him from a cult that worships him. Without going into much detail, lets just say Alton possesses extraordinary powers. Roy and Lucas meet up with Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy’s ex wife and Alton’s mother. The ruptured familial unite has been temporarily restored and they continue on the run, while the cult and the government attempt to track them down.
That’s all I want to say in terms of plot because the mystery as to what exactly is going on (what’s up with Alton’s powers? Where is the family going?) is one of the most captivating things about “Midnight Special.” The picture is remarkably paced; the screenplay never reveals too much information at any one moment. Nichols keep the viewer in a consistent state of suspense; just when you think you have the film figured out it takes a left turn and throws you off its scent. There’s rarely a stagnant moment.
Yet, as exciting and tense as the film can be, it wouldn’t count for much without the strong emotional core brought on by the bond between Roy and Alton. Shannon is known for playing menacing, sometimes scene chewing, characters. He has a daunting physical appearance: an intimidating six foot three build, a rough looking face and a thousand yard stare that could melt ice. Here, however he’s appropriately low key and gentle, playing a father who would do anything to protect his son. At the same time, he’s still trying to full understand Alton and what he’s capable of doing. Ultimately, Roy has to do what’s best for him, even if it ultimately means letting Alton go, letting him go out into the world and find his place in it.
The young Lieberher is also quite strong (understated without becoming robotic) and I found his character’s growth to be one of the most emotionally resonant pieces of the movie. He begins as just another weird child with special abilities that we’ve seen a thousand times before. He’s an animate macguffin-- a living prop, objectified by those around him and misunderstood. To the cult, he’s their prophet; to the government he’s a weapon (he’s neither). In whatever context, he’s a valuable commodity. Though gradually, Alton transitions from object to subject, gaining awareness of himself (including his powers) and the world around him. Eventually, it’s Alton who confidently guides the family where they need to go. In this regard, “Midnight Special” is also a coming of age story; Alton’s evolution is handled with authenticity and tenderness.
Not surprisingly, “Midnight Special” can feel cluttered at times and certain intriguing aspects of the narrative are neglected. For example, the cult, lead by an old man named Calvin (Sam Shepard), plays a prominent role at the beginning of the film, but part way through Nichols abruptly tosses them to the side (after a somewhat superfluous scene involving a shootout at a motel) and we never hear about them again. It would have been nice had Nichols either kept them in or found a less sloppy way to write them out of the movie. Their bizarre devotion towards Alton’s make them a compelling antagonistic force, in addition to the pursuing government.
Even so, “Midnight Special” is a fantastic movie, managing to be an exciting mystery/adventure/Sci fi and a poignant father/son drama. It gets better the more I think about it.