There’s definitely something admirable about a filmmaker willing to jump headfirst into a completely original narrative without force feeding plot details, but Jeff Nichols takes that approach a bit too far in Midnight Special. There’s an extremely moving coming of age, family-driven story in there, but it’s tough to appreciate when you spend most of the film’s 111-minute running time trying to piece together and make sense of the details.
The movie opens with Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run as they attempt to take Roy’s eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult that worships him due to his supernatural powers. Alton knows he needs to make his way to a very specific location and Roy, Lucas and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) will stop at nothing to get him there.
Nichols puts a lot of faith in the audience, and for me it was too much. There’s definitely a chance Midnight Special could become more powerful with subsequent viewings but it’s tough to digest and value the material in a single shot. No, you don’t want heavy-handed exposition but Nichols holds back character information to such an extent that it makes it difficult to piece together exactly what happened to Alton in the past, who he’s running from, where he’s heading and what this journey means on a grander scale, too.
The highlights of Midnight Special are the performances. Even if you’re playing catch-up when it comes to the cult and the government’s agendas, one thing that is abundantly clear throughout is that it’s a story about parents who deeply love their son and are determined to do what’s best for him, even if it means risking their lives in the process. Lieberher is a revelation who manages to highlight the kid in Alton despite his wise beyond his years demeanor. Nichols never explains what life was like for the family during better days and in this case, he doesn’t need to. The chemistry between Lieberher, Shannon and Dunst is so palpable that you can truly feel the most important part of their relationship – their devotion to one another. Midnight Special is definitely on the slower side, but their honest connection keeps the stakes high.
Adam Driver also makes a strong impression as Paul Sevier, an NSA agent trying to track down Alton. He evokes this brilliant blend of warmth, curiosity and lightheartedness, qualities that wind up making him one of the most accessible characters in the movie. Sevier’s involvement is also key to pulling everything together as he’s really the only one who recognizes and assesses multiple sides of the situation. You’ve got the loving parents looking out for their son, the religious extremists who worship Alton and then the government trying to protect the world from the unknown. Some portions are stronger than others, but Nichols addresses all three in a way that challenges you to consider all the possibilities.
Midnight Special boasts an abundance of stunning visuals and a spot-on score, both of which contribute to creating an all-consuming atmosphere, but even though you’re engaged from start to finish, the film is slow and can leave you feeling hollow. It’s clear that this is the movie Nichols set out to make. He’s got a deft hand on every element of this production and it suggests that he’s thought through the details of this sci-fi scenario extensively. The problem is, he doesn’t share them and that can make Midnight Special frustrating and unfulfilling, especially if you focus on the curious nature of Alton’s abilities and what they mean. It isn’t about the sci-fi elements of the film but rather the emotional effects they have on the main characters. Perhaps going into it with that understanding will allow you to appreciate the experience more than I did.