There is a scene in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special where a young boy looks down at his kneeling father, and in a sincere attempt to comfort him, says “You don’t have to worry about me.” The father, hovering at an emotional crossroads between physical protection of his son and parental support of the child’s purpose and identity, stares sincerely back, and counters with “I like worrying about you.”
Although this refreshing new movie contains fanatic cult members, pursuing government agents, supernatural forces and struggles between faith and reason, its heart and effectiveness are encompassed in those two sentences and in the depth of feeling conveyed by them. For everything else that it is, Midnight is a poignant story of a father constantly questioning what he will and won’t do for his son, and the ways in which this informs what the boy accomplishes because of his unwavering support. The devotion to this simple conceit by Nichols and his spectacular cast ultimately makes Midnight something legitimately special; an sensitive adventure worth savoring in a movie season cluttered by empty action spectacle.
Spectacle of a certain variety does eventually make its way into Midnight Special, which feels in some way like Nichols own version of a science-fiction blockbuster circa the late 1970’s. When it does expand its scope, the film’s grander scale is anchored by intimately depicted characters and a plot whose unanswered questions actually make it more interesting instead of less. Nichols begins the film already knee-deep in the story, introducing us to stoic, suspicious Roy (Michael Shannon) and his quiet, watchful accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as they make their escape from a motel hidey-hole with Alton (Jaden Lierberher), the boy they have seemingly abducted. The first time we meet Alton, he’s shrouded under the cover of a blanket, wearing swim goggles and reading superhero comics by flashlight; although not atypical behavior for a kid of his age, the image itself offers an otherworldly presence that prepares us for what happens next.
Nichols reveals only moments later what the audience has already suspected; Roy is Alton’s father, and news reports are calling it a ‘kidnapping’, although what Roy has really done is removed Alton from the hands of a cultish religious sect who worship the boy and what he represents. A subsequent scene introduces us to the cult’s leader, a charismatic but subtly sinister Sam Shepherd, who explains to the government agents detaining he and his flock that their faith is essentially based on numeric sequences received from Alton during scary, supernatural seizures that cause beams of light to burst from the boy’s eyes. NSA specialist Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) is also interested in these ‘messages’, not least because they represent sensitive government intelligence information no one should be privy too. As Sevier and the government close in on Alton’s whereabouts, Bill Camp’s cultist is sent out find and retrieve the boy for Shepherd. As these outside forces pursue the little group, Roy and Lucas meet-up with Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and focus on getting Alton to a specific location suggested by coordinates found in the numbers.
This is Michael Shannon’s fifth collaboration with Nichols (the two have worked together on every one of the latter’s films) and together the duo achieve an artistic shorthand when approaching characters. Shannon’s acting persona depends upon a certain internal gruffness that can alternate between gentle concern and simmering menace at the drop of a hat; Nichols uses this quality as a foundation, and then lays on new facets to create men who share the same emotional base DNA but explore and channel it in different ways. Shannon elevates the movie with his interactions with young Lierberher, who turns in an exceptional performance, essentially playing a kid who has to take early inventory of both his strengths and his frailties in order to face his destiny. Anyone with young children will find many of their scenes together inherently touching, even when much is left unspoken between them.
Ultimately, Midnight Special does still play like an ensemble film, albeit one with Roy and Alton as the magnetic core. Edgerton is great as Lucas, and one of the joys in the picture is watching this man navigate his own moral guidelines as he does his best to stay true to Alton and Roy. Dunst is expertly understated as Alton’s mother; she does some of the most nuanced acting of her career through body language that illustrates the stinging undercurrent of pain and regret her character feels. Driver, Shepherd and Camp provide the secondary characters with some welcome texture and depth, even when they only appear in a handful of scenes. In fact, all across the cast, there is nary a performance that doesn’t feel suitably calibrated to its role in the film. David Wingo’s pulsing, haunting score and Adam Stone’s evocative cinematography function almost as their own characters, adding a substantive charge to overall success of Special.
In his other films Nichols has explored the divisiveness of unwavering faith and the potential snags of blind religious conviction –even his last feature, Mud, took an almost biblical slant towards its American gothic storyline– but in Midnight, he approaches a story that could have slipped too easily into generic New Testament allegory. Alton does have special powers and an unseen force speaks to him and draws him to a larger destiny; some of those gathered around him, like Edgerton’s Lucas, play the role of disciple, while others like Driver’s aptly named Paul seem like potential apostles for his true mission; he’s hunted down by both religious adherents and the government structure, and his long-suffering mother aches for him while worrying for the day when he might be beyond her reach. All of this could have been potentially disastrous for the movie had it been played allegorically, but instead the performances acknowledge and incorporate those contextual cultural touchstones; these individuals are well aware of the patterns and roles they are called to play and it adds a certain figurative richness to the relationships.
The focus is again on Roy, the father, who ignores all of these symbols and constructs because his love for Alton blinds him to them; he doesn’t see the boy as a victim to be saved, a savior to be worshiped, or some alien other to be feared. Alton is simply his son, and he spends the movie listening to the boy reveal who he is and where he’s headed, without any external interference. Some will see the story as a parallel for those dealing with terminally-ill children, and although some of this plays out pragmatically in the story, I believe Nichols is aiming at something a bit more universal and every day. The truth is every time parents embark on a journey to raise children, they encounter many of the same internal struggles and challenges that plague the characters in this film. Most telling is how Roy ultimately ends up relating to Alton; he cares for his son’s safety, but knows that if Alton is going to find the man he’s supposed to become, he must help him discover that path regardless of whether it leads away from home.
From time to time, the movie does slow to a crawl, and even when the finale arrives, the most patient and self-sufficient of viewers may still yearn for just a little more resolution from Nichols. There are some textural flaws in the execution, and some narrative threads are too suddenly terminated, but these are minor blemishes that in no way mar what Midnight Special wants to achieve. This is the best kind of science fiction film; one that doesn’t forget to be thoughtful but appreciates the intricacies of the human heart just as much as the mysteries of the cosmos.
Nathan’s Score: 4 out of 5 stars
Rating: PG-13 for some violence and action
Written and directed by: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 112 minutes
Now playing in wide release