In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the adjective form of “special” can be defined as “held in particular esteem” and “readily distinguishable from others in the same category.” For a film to earn that distinction it has to do more than have the word in its title, as is the case with the Jeff Nichols film “Midnight Special.” It has to possess exemplary qualities to revere that enable it to stand out from its peers. As one of the most striking, imposing, and spell-binding original science fiction films in recent memory, “special” is fitting trademark for “Midnight Special.”
The film opens in a central Texas hotel room with two men accompanying a young boy reading Superman comic books in the dark under a blanket with a flashlight. The television is reporting on an Amber Alert for a boy named Alton that was abducted from his adoptive home by his biological father Roy Tomlin and an accomplice named Lucas. As the news expounds in the background, we soon realize these are the three people in question. Their faces now all over the news, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) maintain a guarded awareness and depart with Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to stay ahead of authorities.
Away from the hotel, a sternly resolute man of the cloth, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), discusses finding the missing boy at all costs with advisers in an office before emerging to lead a gathered congregation in an evening sermon. As he begins preaching, scores of federal agents from the FBI arrive with warrants to detain and question the entire group. Through questioning led by Agent Miller (Paul Sparks) and NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), more details emerge. Calvin is the leader of an extremist religious cult at a place they coin The Ranch. He is Alton’s adoptive father and the boy is seen by him and his followers as a prophet who exhibits unexplained supernatural abilities and speaks in tongues and multiple languages. Roy Tomlin has fled The Ranch’s ranks with Alton in order to remove him from their zealous agenda. Lucas is a former state trooper and childhood friend of Roy’s that he enlisted for help.
Looming large, the FBI wants to know how the numbering and dates given by Alton that comprise Calvin’s self-made scripture happen to match encrypted and secret government data. The paranoid government on Roy’s trail sees the boy as an dangerous and unknown threat. This is no longer an ordinary Amber Alert and, when Alton displays what he is capable of, we sense his incredible performance. Staying ahead of their multiple pursuers, Roy, Lucas, and Alton gain fresh help from Roy’s wife and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) as they head east to answer one of Alton’s prognosticated coordinates and calendar dates. To tell you more would spoil and defeat the engaging experience of discerning this quest for yourself.
The consummate Michael Shannon leads a bevy of masterful acting performances. His impassioned father Roy is a welcome departure from his recent trend of playing the lunatic or the menace. “Midnight Special” shows off how tremendous he can be when given a role on the positive side of principles. He continues to be one of the most consistently powerful, mesmerizing, and underutilized actors of his generation. Shannon’s initiative is joined by a natural and near-soulful performance from newcomer Jaeden Lieberher. His ability to express those qualities here and in films like “St. Vincent” and “The Confirmation” places him as one of the best young actors working today. Their key father-and-son connection is one of the film’s stout cornerstones. Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton add their welcome ingredients of levity and honor respectively as another essential.
Without question, the greatest strength of “Midnight Special” is the trait of ambiguity. There is power in the suggested unknown. Too many films, especially within the science fiction genre, spoon-feed bites of intelligence to its audience because of some imagined need to be easy to digest for the immediate gratification generation of today. Once they start, they can’t stop (“Interstellar” anyone?). Those films oversimplify and over-explain their world-building exposition and narrative intentions from the opening titles to the closing credits. The screenwriters think a tidy bow of rushed completion in the denouement is required to earn positive audience satisfaction.
You will get no such elucidation in “Midnight Special.” As seen in “Take Shelter” and “Mud” before this, Jeff Nichols is brilliantly purposeful in avoiding those tropes and pitfalls. By not revealing more than figurative bread crumbs, Nichols and his film activates your interpretation to take over the thinking. You, as an audience, feel as tested and reactive as the characters themselves in trying to figure out the meanings that await may or may not come in their journey’s culmination and tipping point. Between the dueling agendas of government fear and religious worship, Nichols achieves a grounded and palpable tone of mystery and tension where either side could be right or wrong about Alton as a threat or a savior.
This strength of ambiguity is also the film’s greatest challenge. Those unprepared to create their own perception or arrive resistant to making the necessary commitment will have their tolerance and patience tested. They may likely find the limited concrete revelations and wealth of unanswered question confusing or downright absurd. The head-scratchers may outnumber the applauders.
You have to remember, “Midnight Special” is verifiable science fiction in the vein of Carpenter’s “Starman” and Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Believability is meant to be demanding. What one might consider weird in those films can be seen as wondrous and profound to a different eye. Heed the advice to arrive with an open and eager mind. Allow this wholly unique film to perplex you, shake you, tug you, drop your jaw, and race your mind.
Lesson #1: A father will protect his child— As simple as stone this archetype is chiseled on in storytelling lore and human instinct, Roy is that unwavering father who will do everything he can to protect his child. No sacrifice, risk, or measure is too great for a father.
Lesson #2: One man’s prophet is another man’s fanatic-– The patient development of “Midnight Special” through the opposing lenses of peril versus divinity creates questions as to whose side has the right assessment on Alton. Could the government be wrongly quelling a living epiphany or are Roy and the religious radicals blind to his destructive capability? Who is the reality and who is the fantasy?
Lesson #3: When people are asked to do things beyond them— Because of the gravity of the situation, every main and contributing character in “Midnight Special” is faced with this lesson’s burden in some shape or form. Depending on their perspective, they approach their obligation with varying magnitudes of wary trepidation or, conversely, complete faith and dedication.