REVIEW SUMMARY: Taut and suspenseful, with strong performances by a solid cast, Jeff Nichols’s foray into science fiction relies heavily on ambiguity and atmosphere but is let down by its ending.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A father abducts his eight-year-old son from a religious cult when he learns that his child has unique powers.
PROS: Assured pace and direction from Jeff Nichols; strong screenplay; good performances from an outstanding cast.
CONS: Ending feels out-of-place.
Light shines with otherworldly brilliance in Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special, though the nature of that luminosity the masterful writer-director shrouds in shadow. Often it works; until the arresting, if baffling, climax, the movie divulges little of who Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is or what drives his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his father’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to kidnap him from the religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) that sees Alton as their messiah. The ambiguity surrounding Alton allows Midnight Special to focus on its characters and their reaction to this Slan-like eight-year-old boy rather than his exact nature, which may frustrate viewers weaned on Hollywood blockbusters free of plot uncertainties. It’s the kind of movie Steven Spielberg would have made before massive success dimmed some of his artistic brilliance, E.T. melded with The Sugarland Express.
Alton indeed possesses powers: he can recite numbers that turn out to be satellite coordinates (used by Meyer and his flock in evening sermons), and can knock them from orbit simply by looking at them (as in a scene where Roy and Lucas must speed away from falling satellite debris smashing into the convenience store where they have stopped for gas). He picks up radio waves, channeling an announcer’s spiel with perfect accuracy even when in another language. When not shielded by a pair of blue swimming goggles his eyes glow, offering a glimpse into another world. (Maybe.) It catches the attention of the federal government, particularly the NSA’s Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), who want to uncover the basis for Alton’s remarkable powers. As played by the young Lieberher, Alton’s normal appearance belies his remarkable talents; with a mix of childlike innocence and celestial wisdom, he conveys what it must be like to view the Other with an intensity that borders on the uncomfortable. When Meyer reveals to a government official that Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) left after Alton’s powers strengthened, we can understand.
Material like Midnight Special runs the risk of dipping into sentimentality or obfuscation. In lesser hands, it might have made obvious Alton’s origins, the nature of Meyer’s church, and the NSA’s exact interest in him. We know this story so well we can sleep through it. Fortunately, director and screenwriter Nichols shows little interest in retelling it, wanting instead to see what happens when ordinary people find themselves thrust into extraordinary circumstances. He grounds his movie in the minutiae of detail, from the gas stations and motels dotted along Roy’s and Lucas’s (and, eventually, Sarah’s) route to the car commercials running before news accounts of Alton’s abduction by his father, making his story’s mysteries viable and encouraging the audience to fill in the necessary spaces. (In one scene, Sarah asks how Lucas knows Roy and why he’s helping him. Lucas’s response speaks volumes, even though the character says very little.) It helps that Midnight Special takes place in a part of the world little seen in science fiction movies. In a genre that promises alien vistas yet delivers worlds leached of wonder due to overuse, Nichols’s Southern United States, despite the familiarity of the locales, feels as strange as Arrakis or Gethen, a Flannery O’Connor story as illustrated by Gregory Crewdson. Nichols also wisely chooses to keep his pace even, seldom crowding his scenes with needless cutting or dragging them out with faux suspense.
Nichols’s stylistic and artistic choices mean that much of Midnight Special’s success rests on the work of its cast, which meets the movie’s challenge admirably. Michael Shannon captures Roy’s conviction and determination with the severity he has brought to other roles (this is his fourth movie with Nichols), while Joel Edgerton’s Lucas must show solidarity with a friend whom he believe just might have teetered into insanity. Dunst, too, delivers a fine performance, striking the right balance between motherly love, loss of faith, and renewed purpose. Driver and Shepard find the human layers of their ostensible antagonists, never succumbing to the two-dimensional villains that mar similar work.
The biggest problem Midnight Special has is its ending. With all of the allusions to Alton’s identity, Nichols perhaps felt he needed to show the audience what awaits Alton at the movie’s end. Understandable though his decision, in execution he falters, as if attempting to merge this Spielberg-style humanist story with the transformational overtones of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but winding up with a lumpy metaphysical mess. It may alienate those viewers who stayed with him until that point. One hopes it doesn’t. Midnight Special shines its ever-loving light on its audience with incredible radiance, even if the filament burns out by the closing credits.