In 2011, Jeff Nichols premiered his second film, Take Shelter, at the Sundance Film Festival. Instantly, audiences realized that one of the most interesting new voices in American cinema had been announced. He followed that achievement up with one better in a lyrical and even transcendentalist film, Mud, which is equal parts Mark Twain and Sam Peckinpah. Thus with Midnight Special, Nichols takes another ambitious step as a storyteller: he’s made a studio thriller.
The most remarkable feat about such a transition is that despite wearing his Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter influences on his sleeve in Midnight Special, a nocturnal chase movie through the Deep South with science fiction elements, Nichols’ vision stays uncompromised and is wholly apiece with the talent showcased in Take Shelter. Yet, for better or worse, that has also resulted in a film that is meant to quicken the pulse and the emotional connection to its story about a father on the run and a boy on a celestial ascension. But neither element so much endears as remains aloof, lost in the steam coming off that Louisiana bayou during the witching hour.
Consequently, it is hard not to admire Midnight Special, just as it is nigh impossible to embrace it on the emotional underpinnings it yearns to create.
As the center of that web, Michael Shannon is unsurprisingly terrific as the quiet and desperate Roy. His son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has been touched by a power of unknown origin since birth and possesses the ability to share visions from his glowing eyes so powerful that it can transform a state trooper like Lucas (Joel Edgerton) from pursuer to devoted disciple. Where these visions come from, and the full extent of their implications, remains unquantifiable even after the ending credits, but it is safe to conclude that they are of a science fiction variety (as opposed to religious), and that they suggest a world as aspirational as all the listless adjectives used in last year’s Tomorrowland.
However, this does not stop the visions’ grandeur from becoming the idol of worship for a cult manipulated by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Roy and his love Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) have apparently been members of Meyer’s brainwashed flock all their lives, but only found true inspiration and purpose when Alton was born. Most of this is inferred since the movie opens right in the midst of the action with the FBI raiding Meyer’s ranch in search of this gifted youngster. In fact, the feds have brought in a specialist named Sevier (Adam Driver) to hunt down Alton, who has already been spirited away by Roy and Lucas to a mysterious destination.
So, the chase is on from the very first frame with the cult seeking to retrieve their mini-messiah that will supposedly bring about the End of Days, and the feds following right behind in order to get their hands on this powerful weapon.
It must first be said that Midnight Special is a patiently cultivated film where everyone involved creates the same textured authenticity that has been present in all of Nichols’ movies to date. After working with the director for four films, Shannon has a seeming shorthand with the filmmaker and knows how to wordlessly convey a dawning, late-in-life self-awareness for Roy that proves to be the film’s strongest anchor. Similarly, Dunst, Edgerton, Driver, and Shepard all do very well with the material, sketching portraits that you know have already been detailed at length off-screen.
And in the age of exposition-heavy thrillers, this attention to character depth in a thriller that is uninterested with filler is as appreciated as Adam Stone’s beautiful cinematography, which especially impresses with its late night shadows—and their sparing illuminations for when Alton takes off his sunglasses and looks his estranged parents in the eye (if they don’t go blind first).
For the record, they must travel at night, simply because Alton’s pupils are too sensitive for sunlight. Yet the exact mechanics of this, and how Alton and Roy traverse all that comes with it, is ultimately as unfulfilling as the overall effect of the finished product. While reaching for a story about the power of a family’s love within an almost Lovecraftian styled story about unknowable genre elements is great, it also remains too entrenched in its own conspiratorial world for the audience to meet it halfway.
At the end of the day, Midnight Special is meant to be a story about a father and son, and the lengths the former will go to protect the latter, but the son remains little more than a prop in Shannon’s arms. In its quest to keep the cards close to its chest, the movie never allows Alton to be anything greater than a glorified MacGuffin with some nifty LED lens flare.
To mix genres for a moment, everyone’s covetous nature around Alton, from Driver’s nerdy specialist on down to Edgerton’s perpetual awe, objectifies the child’s abilities to the point where they are as hollow and moot as the Maltese Falcon. But since this story lives or dies upon him being more than a hunk of graphite, and is in fact about the meaning of Roy’s life, the consequence is crippling for the emotional crux at the heart of things.
Hence, Midnight Special is an interesting film, but not the cathartic epic that Nichols likely planned. All of the talent is still there, and the promise of even bigger, more ambitious films of the same cloth in the future remains enticing. But this road trip never reaches its intended destination.