With Take Shelter and Mud under his belt, Jeff Nichols has made a name for himself crafting high-concept ideas and placing them within the low-key nature of Southern life. Midnight Special might be his most ambitious picture yet, proving to be a film big on ideas and big on relationships. There’s been a lot of comparisons to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and it’s not hard to see them.
[Some plot details ahead.]
The film opens with Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) already on the run. Roy has taken his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult known only as The Ranch, and with Lucas’ help he plans to take Alton to a place where his purpose in the universe can be discovered. As it turns, out Alton has a gift, a gift that manifests itself as the ability to understand radio waves in the air- but at great cost to Alton’s health. And with Alton saying there’s an important datecoming up, Roy has escaped to spare his son from whatever madness The Ranch want to force him into.
At the same time, the FBI, who have been monitoring The Ranch, become interested in Alton’s recovery, seeing him as a weapon that has to be contained. With the laws of men and god following them, Roy, Lucas, Alton and later Alton’s mother Sara (Kirsten Dunst) try desperately to hold onto one another as they push themselves further into unknown territory, and come face-to-face with the realization that Alton’s purpose was going to change the very fabric of their world.
As far as plots go, this one is very simple, keeping the focus on Roy and Alton trying to stick together as they travel cross-country. Where the film shines is how it uses the simplicity of the story to bring into question a lot of unexplained back-story about Alton and his purpose: who is he, where did he come from, what exactly are his powers, how did The Ranch find him? All these questions and more pop up throughout the film, with only a handful of them being answered. It’s a film that prefers to keep you in the dark, and it actually works better that way. The film doesn’t explain because it never has the need to explain. The journey is what’s important, rather than the destination, and even that ends up with just more confusion but also a sense of wonderment and possibility about what it all means.
The character-work is strong, though, considering some of the supporting characters they could’ve got more screen-time. Reverend Calvin (Sam Shepard) seems to be taking on the role as the film’s big baddie as a sinister religious leader, but he vanishes early on. And Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) has a sinister air about him, but his intentions are always clouded, leaving it ambiguous to what side he’s on.
The film really focuses on the one group of Roy, Alton, Sarah and Lucas, and to its credit that’s how it should’ve been. The film’s central theme of family works best because we spend so long following these people and watch them trying to evade capture at every turn. Lucas is the outsider of the group, a childhood friend of Roy who lost contact a long time ago but has now joined to help protect Alton. While Lucas has seen Alton’s powers at work, he hasn’t as yet been able to see them at his full potential, so a lot of the time his reactions are ones of confusion and fear, but never hate. It’s an important point that, as much as Lucas is scared of what Alton might do, he still cares for the boy and even argues with Roy about getting him to a doctor. It might be pushing it to call Lucas a skeptic, but in the grand scheme he does take on the role of someone who learns to believe.
Kirsten Dunst takes on the role of Sara, Alton’s mother who was excommunicated from The Ranch a couple years before. Dunst does a very understated job with Sara; she obviously misses her son and is happy to see him again, but she also comes to recognize that Alton is different, that there’s something otherworldly about him and, like it or not, she may lose him again. While not as strongly connected to Alton as Roy is, Dunst still manages to convey a mother coming to terms with the extent of her son’s gift. She’s probably the most realistic of the group, but in that it hurts her all the more because of how much she’s torn between losing her son again and never letting him out of her sight.
Nichol’s partner-in-crime Michael Shannon plays Roy, and for an actor primarily known for playing wide-eyed, half-crazed maniacs, Shannon provides a very strong sense of humanity to the character. Roy has been with Alton through everything, even watching Calvin raise him for the last two years, but with events starting to turn against them he’s made the decision to escape and see where Alton leads them. Roy can be harsh, but it’s only because of how sensitive his son is. He feels he has to make sure every little thing is in the right place at the right time Shannon excels in the role and helps provide the film with its central family theme. You can tell that no matter what, Roy is going to protect Alton because as a father he believes in his son and is willing to do anything he can to make sure he gets what he needs.
But the main star of the film is Jaeden Lieberher as Alton Myers. While Jaeden has been acting for a few years now, this should be his breakout role, much like Mud was for Tye Sheridan. What’s great is that Lieberher manages to almost perfectly balance the lines between child performance and wise-beyond-his-years; there are moments where Alton speaks with such maturity that you’d be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t an eight-year-old boy. But then you’ll get a scene where Alton’s powers are too much to handle, and the piercing cries of pain he lets out remind you that this is a child who has gone through life never knowing normality, always hurting for reasons beyond his control. It’s a performance that absolutely makes the movie.
Jeff Nichols might have added his own southern twist to the genre, but the Spielberg influences are very evident, from the name of the film referencing 80s cult movies to the fact that Nichols wrote this after his first child was born as a perspective towards being a father. To hark back to earlier, the Close Encounters vibe is strong, but in a good way. This doesn’t feel like a rip-off, more that it’s using that as a textbook example while still doing enough to forge its own identity. The entire basis of the film has its roots in sci-fi, but Nichols keeps his cards very close to his chest, never revealing too much that he doesn’t want the audience to know about. Its low-key approach is one of the reasons it works so well, ensuring that there’s always a sense of mystery. Much like Nichol’s previous film, Take Shelter, the enigma of not knowing what’s going on is trumped by the excitement of wondering where you’ll be going next.
If nothing else, Nichols makes a hell of a genre flick. The added Southern twist keeps it grounded in reality, but the sci-fi aspects still ring true .An early gas station scene sets the tone for what Alton can do and just builds from there, with electronic locks and cars proving an easy task for him to overcome. The use of light becomes very important, with Alton’s necessity for darkness juxtaposing against the violent white that shines from his eyes, at least in the first half. The final five minutes might leave people with a lot more questions than answers, but as previously stated, the journey beats the destination and like all great sci-fi films, this one will inspire discussions and theories about the meaning behind it all.
While Mud and Take Shelter are more well-defined than Midnight Special, Nichols has still made a rural sci-fi family flick and made it work. He takes a high-concept idea with a sense of mystery, adds in a great amount of acting talent with Shannon and Lieberher providing a great father/son dynamic, and brings it all together with his low-key, genre-styled direction. It’s one that might annoy some people because of how little it wants to tell you, but it doesn’t have to. And that’s the whole idea: following these people into the unknown and being just as wowed by it as they are.
4 out of 5 Hairpieces