The final shot of “Midnight Special” conjures memories of the concluding image of “Take Shelter,” the last collaboration between Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon. The two movies end with Shannon’s character gazing into the distance with an awestruck look, the look of a man who has seen a vital truth to which everyone else is blind. The expression on Shannon’s face in both cases exemplifies the elusiveness and skill of Nichols’ movies. Nichols tells stories that speak to universal themes of family, sacrifice, human conviction, youthful wonder, and mystery. But while he often hits at the core of our emotions and curiosities, he also divulges little in the way of narrative clarity. “Midnight Special” is his most confounding film to date, an intensely fascinating puzzle that provokes a mix of excitement and confusion.
Any plot description of “Midnight Special” is bound to be futile and incomplete, and anyone who claims to grasp a full understanding of the film’s chronological arc should be subjected to a polygraph test. Here is my best stab at a summary: A boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) possesses magical abilities to predict the future and control seismic events to occur, such as when he causes a satellite to come crashing down from space. The federal government views Alton as a national security threat and the holder of top-secret information. Meanwhile, a religious cult conceives of Alton as their lone savior, the only person who can lead them to the Promised Land on the day of their rapture. The government and the cult use Alton as a cog to advance their own agendas, and neither side approaches the truth. Only Alton’s father (Michael Shannon), mother (Kirsten Dunst), and family acquaintance (Joel Edgerton) comprehend Alton’s actual purpose and destiny, and they do everything in their power to protect Alton from his likely abduction.
“Midnight Special” rarely emerges from its vagueness, and that seems to be a deliberate move by Nichols. The movie thrusts the audience into a world where right and wrong are at times indistinguishable, a world in which individual motives are impossible to pinpoint. Nichols revels in creating stories that yield multiple interpretations, and he shows no interest in achieving resolution. This is a blessing and a curse, as “Midnight Special” had me simultaneously celebrating its majestic pull and denouncing its stubborn determination to stay grounded in convoluted modes of storytelling. Nichols demonstrates an unparalleled ability to blend the fantasy of science fiction with the rawness of real-life experience, but it is difficult to become fully immersed in his mastery when you spend the better part of two hours trying to understand what is happening.
Reservations aside, Nichols is an undeniably gifted filmmaker, and “Midnight Special” never ceases to exhilarate. This movie is Nichols’ most technically impressive work. The film is awash in the sweeping visuals of the natural – and the extraterrestrial – world. It is also a shrewd amalgamation of Nichols’ last two movies, “Take Shelter” and “Mud.” Alton’s youthful innocence and wondrous power serves as a natural progression from the youth-centered focus of “Mud,” while the more fantastical elements are an outgrowth of the motifs that Nichols explored in “Take Shelter.”
At age 37, Nichols has already established a rapport with certain actors that is normally reserved for legends like Scorsese. “Midnight Special” is his third partnership with Michael Shannon, an actor of titanic greatness who can shift the entire orbit of a scene with just his eyes and physical demeanor. Shannon propels this movie with the force of a jet engine. It is another extraordinary performance in a career full of them, following Shannon’s work in “99 Homes,” the aforementioned “Take Shelter,” and “Revolutionary Road.” While Shannon is the film’s most valuable asset, he is joined by a uniformly splendid cast. Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard, Adam Driver, and young Jaeden Lieberher strike nary a false note.
“Midnight Special” is as murky as the ethical dilemmas that pervade its story, but its complexity does not distract from its visceral grip. Despite its flaws, it is another statement from Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, two forces of nature who know how to spin a tale.