The best sci-fi doesn’t need to be complicated; a high concept can be explored in deeply intimate, personal terms. Steven Spielberg was the master of this, especially in the ’80s when directing all of those movies we loved as kids. He knew how to take the impossible and use it to shine a light on what was right in front of our faces. That skill doesn’t come to everybody, but one man who has it in spades is Jeff Nichols, whose latest film “Midnight Special” is full of mysteries, secrets, chases, and cults, but when boiled down to its very essence is a remarkable story about a father’s love for his son.
Faith and fatherhood have been at the core of Nichols’ films post-“Shotgun Stories”, yet he never tackles either directly. The confidence which he weaves numerous other elements and genres is just one reason why he’s one of the most fascinating directors working today. “Midnight Special” begins looking very different than how it concludes. The lean, muscular setup begins with Roy (Nichols’ rocksteady star, Michael Shannon) and his pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton), crammed into a seedy motel with all of the lights out; the windows draped shut. Is it to prevent light from getting in? To deny outsiders visibility into the room? A report on the TV fills us in; they’re kidnappers, and the boy they’re running away with, 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), is Roy’s son. The report stirs something in them; they have to leave RIGHT NOW. Seconds later they’re tearing down the road in pitch black night, leaving only the sound of the car’s roaring engine.
This is no simple kidnapping. The boy is “special”; he’s got strange powers nobody seems to understand. Roy believes he’s meant for a greater purpose that will unfold in a few days’ time. But what is it? What is the extent of Alton’s abilities? How did he gain them? What does Roy know that we don’t? And why is there a secretive cult (led by Sam Shepard) chasing him, as well? Why did the FBI send special agent Sevier (Adam Driver at his dorkiest), who seems to know more than anybody else, in to try and talk to Alton? Nichols doesn’t go out of his way to answer anything, letting the mystery unfold in skillful, deliberate strokes. Although this is Nichols’ first real studio effort, he isn’t trying to fix what has never been broken. His gradual, thoughtful aesthetic is still in place, creating a world so rich in details it stretches beyond the frame. Even as literal meteors begin raining down from the skies, Nichols keeps the story on such a small scale that it could work as either a family drama or blockbuster sci-fi, a tricky combination to pull off for any filmmaker.
But it’s in the familial aspects where the film is at its best. Yes, the chase scenes are gripping and the mystery appropriately puzzling, but in the relationship between Roy and Alton we see more than just your typical father/son bond. This is a question of the ultimate faith. Every father wants to believe his son to be unique, because in a way it validates his own life. But what if that were undeniably true? That your son wasn’t just special, but something truly unfathomable? As Roy, Shannon is once again charismatic as a father who is unrelenting in the defense of his child. Usually this is a trait we see depicted by women, the “maternal instinct” factor that has powered many a thriller. Alton’s mother does arrive a bit later in the film, played by Kirsten Dunst, and in her we see years of pent up concerns and worries over the fate of her boy, however this story clearly isn’t about her. But perhaps the most intriguing character of all is Lucas, a true believer willing to risk all for his friend. The loyalty and unshakable faith he shows is the film’s beating heart, one that is immeasurably large. And let’s not forget Lieberher, who gets the unenviable task of playing the film’s greatest puzzle. It’s a difficult role because it means never revealing too much emotionally one way or another, yet still finding the childlike sensibilities that make us understand who Alton is. Lieberher’s well-practiced at this point, having undergone the mentorship of Bill Murray in “St. Vincent” and Clive Owen in recent drama “The Confirmation” and perhaps what’s most amazing is the effortless chemistry he’s able to build with his co-stars, which now includes Shannon.
Nichols’ story unfolds in such a straight-forward, linear fashion that some elements feel like an unnecessary intrusion. The cult aspect probably didn’t need to be there, and while Driver’s NSA investigator provides some welcome comic relief and a bit of grounding, the feds’ involvement is a diversion that takes us away from the characters we are fully invested in. To Nichols’ credit, he’s able to take a finale full of flash and spectacle to create something warm and human.
Similar to what he was able to accomplish with “Take Shelter”, Nichols weaves the common with the uncommon, putting his own spin on the Amblin formula. “Midnight Special” is a dark and daring enigma, one that leaves its many mysteries wide open, putting faith in you to sort out the answers.