When the brilliant science fiction thriller “Midnight Special” ends, the audience receives little explanation regarding what has happened. The slow burn, fascinating journey that director/writer Jeff Nichols takes you on is so emotionally resonating that it doesn’t matter.
“Midnight Special” is destined to become a cult classic, embraced by those that don’t need their sci-fi yarns tied up with a bow and hated by, well, everyone else. If you find yourself constantly asking “why is this happening” during movies, this one may not be your cup of tea.
Over the course of 111 minutes, “Midnight Special” methodically reveals all of the reasons that the Federal government, a religious cult, and his parents are obsessed with finding and controlling an eight year old boy named Alton (a superb Jaeden Lieberher).
Essentially a road trip movie, “Midnight Special” begins with Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) speeding away at sunset from a cheap Texas motel in a Chevelle, immediately giving this modern day southern gothic tale a 1970s look and feel. In the back of the car, reading comic books with a flashlight while wearing black out goggles, is Alton. Roy and Lucas are armed to the teeth and after an Amber Alert news flash in which Roy is named the suspect, their motives become highly suspicious.
The movie then moves to an exceptionally creepy religious compound called “The Ranch” led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard, fully channeling Warren Jeffs). Instead of going “full Waco”, the FBI moves in without force, detains everyone in the compound, and let it be known they are interested in tracking down Alton and his abductors, who had been raised for the last two years by Meyer.
The air of mystery only thickens as “Midnight Special” deepens further during NSA agent Paul Sevier’s (Adam Driver) questioning of The Ranch residents. They believe that Alton has special powers delivered to him from God, while the FBI sees Alton as a threat and potential weapon.
The true nature of Alton’s “abilities” are too good to reveal and Nichols resists all urges to spill the beans too quickly. A less disciplined director would have spelled it all out then turned this into a silly chase flick. Instead, Nichols is using a science fiction premise to tell a story about what parents (Kirsten Dunst eventually shows up as Alton’s mother) will do to protect their child.
This is the fifth movie that Nichols has made featuring Michael Shannon and it’s abundantly clear why this partnership works. Nichols has written a character with steely resolve and an unrelenting desire to help his son, which Shannon completely inhabits with his typical intensity. That conviction is all over Shannon’s face the entire movie and there’s never a moment of false emotion.
Like another Nichols film, “Mud”, “Midnight Special” requires a sturdy performance from a young actor and Jaeden Lieberher’s work is quite spectacular. There are a handful of scenes in which adults are looking to Lieberher’s Alton for answers and he comes off much wiser than his years. There is one scene that he shares with an extremely wary Driver that is simultaneously anxious and funny and, if not for a jaw dropping finale, would be the highlight of the entire film.
The methodical build up of “Midnight Special” is due to the work of three things: Nichols’ direction and script, the cinematography of Adam Stone, and the music from David Wingo. The first half of the movie occurs during night, which Stone captures beautifully with what seems to be natural light. Wingo’s creepy, dark score builds then finishes with a crescendo that only adds to the aforementioned emotionally powerful finale.
“Midnight Special” is a fantastic science fiction story that is a bit of an homage to movies of the 1970s. The relationships and actions of the characters becomes more important than learning why it is all happening and eventually are the driving force of the entire plot. Jeff Nichols has cleverly disguised a family-oriented movie with supernatural overtones that only makes his next movie that much more anticipated.
In stores on Tuesday, June 21.