There are several ways in which ‘Midnight Special’ feels like a throwback. In movie geekery terms, the film plays as an homage to the mystery, complexity, wonderment and technical mastery that young Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter brought to their early efforts (specifically, ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Starman’). More than that, the movie harkens back to a time when studios would entrust talented emerging filmmakers with mid-budget movies that pushed the boundaries of an easily marketable form.
‘Midnight Special’ is simultaneously a thrilling new sci-fi chase picture for Warner Bros. and a complexly creative new effort from writer/director Jeff Nichols that almost feels like a companion piece to his brilliant breakout feature ‘Take Shelter‘. Hopefully it’s a sign that studios will take risks in more of these sorts of projects rather than merely being an anomaly.
I hesitate to describe any of the plot since the intoxicatingly mysterious film plays best with a bare minimum of expectations, but movie review conventions demand otherwise so I’ll be as vague as possible. We open with Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) flying down a road with a boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in their back seat. We learn that the child was taken from a doomsday religious cult led by Sam Shepard (excellent, as always) who worshiped the boy’s every word. The cult is being investigated by a variety of government agencies including the NSA (embodied in a delightfully childlike turn from Adam Diver) because Alton somehow shared sensitive government information that he picked up through radio waves.
Soon, it’s revealed that Roy is actually the boy’s father on a rescue mission rather than a kidnapping. Alton can’t go out in daylight and wears goggles to conceal the strange emissions of light that fire out of his eyes (not to mention the stigmata-like pools of light that form in his hands). Roy’s plan is to reunite with Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and get him to a specific location and a specific time that the kid has been prophesizing for ages. How and why are unclear. Is the boy connected to God, aliens, or perhaps another plane of existence beyond our comprehension? It’s tough to say and Nichols won’t spoonfeed any easy explanations along the way.
‘Midnight Special’ opens in the middle of a chase that rarely lets up until the climax. Admirably, Nichols thrusts his audience into the middle of a story in motion, entrusting viewers to embrace the mystery, keep up, and accept explanations only when they arrive (if they ever do). It’s a visceral rush that pulls viewers along through questions (narrative and philosophical), intriguing characters, brilliant performances, and the occasional visual effects light show. The movie is often tense enough that you might forget to breathe, but the filmmaker is never satisfied to settle into a single tone or genre. At times, it feels like pure fantasy, other times like a painfully intimate human drama. There are moments of pure lizard brain movie pleasure and deeper questions to ponder long after the credits roll. It’s a rush for the mind and the gut, a spinning exercise of entertainment with artistic nourishment baked into the core.
‘Take Shelter’ took a similar approach to apocalyptic horror, but remained just opaque enough in its themes and disturbing enough in its drama to frustrate those unwilling to draw their own connections. ‘Midnight Special’ is somehow just as complex and open-ended, yet is so moving in so many ways that it feels emotionally satisfying despite the narrative strands left deliberately dangling. I’m not quite sure how Nichols balanced all those spinning plates, but it’s kind of remarkable to behold.
So much of the success comes down to the filmmaker’s ongoing collaboration with Michael Shannon, one of the most amazing actors of his era. Imposing in height and boasting a pair of remarkably expressive sunken eyes, Shannon fits comfortably into creepy characters and Nichols toys with that perception here. It’s all too easy to draw conclusions and assume that the guy is a nut, but as the tale wears on, it’s clear that he’s anything but. Shannon’s character is a remarkably caring and empathetic father with a heartbreaking journey to follow.
The rest of the cast play characters about whom we learn precious little. There are mysterious figures like Sam Shepard, who cast a presence that sticks in the mind without ever being fully known. Others like Kirsten Dunst and the remarkable young Jaeden Lieberher grow into powerful characters kept just out of reach, with the actors providing answers through their compassioned performances that are never spoken aloud. Some like Egerton and Driver are stunt cast by their faces, with the audience allowed to impose baggage on them from previous roles. (Driver amusingly seems to be cast like Francois Truffaut in ‘Close Encounters’, because he looks like a child as much as an adult with all the wide-eyed wonderment that suggests). The performances are all pitch perfect, which certainly helps sell a visual effects and spectacle-driven story.
While Nichols isn’t exactly know for crafting action scenes and effects sequences, ‘Midnight Special’ is packed with them and they all work wonderfully. Part of it is thanks to his innate ability to create mystery within the negative space of his carefully crafted frames or to use tone as a misdirect. (When a warm moment happens, it’s often as a way to set up an unexpected shock rather than to offer calm in the storm.) The creeping widescreen photography harkens back to John Carpenter’s sense of cinematic atmosphere and the minimalist score by David Wingo also follows suit. Effects scenes are grandly awe-inspiring, but small in a manner that suits the character-driven storytelling. It’s a beautiful mix of elements that feels like a ride, just with deeper purpose.
The film was clearly and overtly inspired by ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Starman’ in its use of hokey science fiction elements to evoke religious awe. Here, Nichols goes a step farther by never quite settling for a specific sci-fi or spiritual explanation. This is a film about faith that admirably never spells out the cause, and that unanswerable mystery is really what faith is all about. In fact, the movie’s lone weakness comes when the director gives us a glimpse of the world that this mysterious child is gateway to. Although the pictures are pretty and deliver an emotional impact while staying indefinably vague, they still can’t quite match the imagination inspired in the setup. That might be because the finale can’t help but draw comparisons to ‘Close Encounters’, in which Steven Spielberg delivered one of the most beautiful light shows in the history of cinema that struck a profound emotional chord through pure imagery and imagination. Nichols can’t match or top that, but then how many movies ever have?
If the biggest flaw in a movie is that the climax can’t live up to one of the greatest ever caught on film, well then, that’s an easy issue to ignore. Everything else certainly feels close to perfect, or at least perfectly imperfect. ‘Midnight Special’ is indeed a special movie that enthralls as both art and entertainment. Seek it out amidst the early waves of this year’s blockbuster onslaught. It deserves the attention and, more importantly, audiences deserve this movie. This is exactly the type of project that isn’t supposed to exist in the studio system anymore (certainly not within the summer movie season) and yet here it is. There’s only one way to encourage this brand of filmmaking to continue. If you’re a fan of intelligent and challenging Hollywood product, let’s put some asses in seats.