Despite being the most obviously otherwordly of writer/director Jeff Nichol’s latest films, Midnight Special is plotted in a much more grounded manner than either Take Shelter or Mud. It feels very much like a product of the 80s, underlined by engrossing synth motifs and a portrait of federal police that feels very much in line with E.T. It also feels very much like a television show, owing to an episodic feel from its road-trip nature and a very Abrams-esque sense of mystery (albeit of a more intriguing variety than Abram’s own Super 8). Like Nichol’s previous films, Midnight Special is one that very much requires patience, and while moments within pay that off, its hard to say how much it adds up to.
Midnight Special is about a young boy named Alton with special gifts, which include giving others a deeply religious experience when they look into his eyes as well as picking up passing radio signals. An early Superman reference is apt, as abilities are added pretty haphazardly until well past half the movie. The more apt comparison is religious in nature, and indeed the film opens with Alton on the run from the cult in which he was raised which is now devoted to him. The cult aspect is a touch familiar, but the twist in perspective is neat; while its nice that it doesn’t let this aspect become too familiar, it leaves a lot of room open to explore. Alton is also on the run from the FBI, who become aware that the messages spread through the cult contain high sensitive information. Aiding his escape are his biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) and a mysterious accomplice named Lucas (Joel Edgerton).
There are a lot of intriguing pieces of the board, clearly enough to expand into a miniseries if so desired. Rather than rush through an explanation of the inner workings of each, Midnight Special is content to let your imagination do the work, and comes across a bit cold because of it. This is fine for the cult, which would inevitably be confusing and disappointing to dive into, and the FBI, who are best left a monolith, but makes it difficult to connect deeply with Roy. Michael Shannon gives a stone-faced performance, which works miracles in big moments, but doesn’t always fill in the blanks that it needs to. There’s a great story in here somewhere about being Jesus’ dad which is touched upon, but demanded more exploration. Eventually, we meet Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who is similarly underserved by the written words. Joel Edgerton’s Lucas benefits the most from the minimalism, as a quasi-audience surrogate who convinces us of how deeply moving the Alton Experience is, but he outgrows his usefulness to the plot early. Meanwhile, Adam Driver hangs around as an NSA tech who sole purpose is provide minor exposition, but feels as if he could be cut out entirely, as his entire purpose in the end is already contained within Lucas’ arc.
While Midnight Special is often sparing in details, its also very willing to spend the time needed to establish a mood. Very few guns go off in the movie, and when they do, they carry the appropriate weight. The scene playing under the opening title card is magnificent in setting a mood, from the sound design to the score to the font chosen for that title card. A later scene involving a road block ratchets up the tension naturally. But the actual ending disappoints a little, not answering any major questions while also not being particularly wonderous. The patience that Nichol’s asks for is fair, but the payoff doesn’t necessarily justify it. The journey is memorable, but there’s something to be said for the destination.
Midnight Special (2016)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Jaeden Lieberher
Rotten Tomatoes (82%)