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 it’s heading. The movie is mainly grounded in the mundane here-and-now, though it eventually pivots toward 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 Steven Spielberg films (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 focus on 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 the aftermath of a child kidnapping. The two kidnappers, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are holed up in a motel with the son, 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.
Roy and Lucas meet up with Sarah (Kristen Dunst), Roy’s ex-wife and Alton’s mother. The ruptured familial unit has been temporarily restored, and they continue on the run, while the cult and the government attempt to track them down.
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 6-foot, 3-inch 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.
The young Lieberher is also quite strong (understated, without becoming robotic), and his character’s growth is 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. 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 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, led by an old man named Calvin (Sam Shepard), plays a prominent role at the beginning of the film, but partway through, Nichols abruptly tosses them to the side, and we never hear about them again.
Even so, “Midnight Special” is a fantastic movie, managing to be an exciting mystery/adventure/sci-fi and a poignant father-son drama.