Part road movie, part heist film, and part exercise in Spielbergian sci-fi, Midnight Special is another intense offering from writer/director Jeff Nichols. Reuniting with actor/muse Michael Shannon, the film retains the foreboding edge and extended moments of quietude of their previous collaboration, Take Shelter, while leaning into more genre-friendly territory. This is, after all, a movie with cults, car chases, disaster film set pieces, and in the middle of it all, a little boy that everyone wants to get their hands on. It’s not clear exactly why at first, which is part and parcel with the film’s philosophy of keeping you in the dark as long as it possibly can. Often, this works to the film’s advantage, but in one crucial respect, it does not.
At its core, this is a simple story: eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, great) has some manner of psychic powers, manifesting themselves as a Children of the Damned-esque white light in his eyes. His father Roy (Shannon) kidnaps him from a cult (led by Sam Shepard) who see him not quite as a messiah, but as the catalyst for a paradigm-shifting holy event. Helping the pair are no-nonsense ex-State Trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton, here giving Shannon a run for his Person with the Most World-Weary Eyes in This Movie title) and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who was kicked out of the cult two years prior. Complicating matters is a litany of federal agents, SWAT teams, and a charmingly dorky NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), all trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.
There any many comparisons that can be made between Midnight Special, the 80s work of Steven Spielberg, and John Carpenter’s Starman, but a more recent fraternal twin is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Both are soft sci-fi parables about the agony and ecstasy of parenting, with parent and child operating on two different cosmic levels. But where Nolan is a maximalist, slathering his film in scientist-approved SFX, heady metaphysics, and church organs that could test the limits of even the mightiest sound systems, Nichols is much more spare, leaning on small details and actions to convey literal and figurative distance. Every gesture and decision taken is carefully calibrated to suggest a world and a series of experiences, and it’s in that space between suggestion and depiction that Midnight Special works best. This often makes for an alluring experience, guided by Nichols’ ability with this specific kind of cinematic slow burn. By playing it close to the chest, he gets more mileage out of his central intrigue. But this also has the effect of weakening the links between the characters themselves, which would actually be less of a problem if he were a full-blown aesthete like Nolan or a purer classicist like Spielberg or Carpenter. The movie hinges on a paternal relationship that feels ill-developed, and a collective backstory that, while deep, mostly just gets gleaned over.
That said, this discrepancy does demonstrate a key factor in considering a narrative that deliberately keeps information from the viewing as a dramatic device. There is a difference between an extradiegetic elliptical past and a textual elliptical present; dots are easier to connect when they’re on screen, even if they’re far apart. It’s the difference between a filmmaker putting their trust in the audience and a bad screenplay. It’s no wonder then that intuition and trust factor heavily in the relationship between Ray and the rest of the cast, and also between Nichols and the audience. And through a mix of smart craft and offbeat storytelling, Midnight Special does not squander that trust.
Midnight Special is currently playing in limited release.
Directed by Jeff Nichols; written by Jeff Nichols; starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, and Kirsten Dunst; 111 minutes.