Midnight Special


Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirtsen Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher

Director: Jeff Nichols

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 

Much will be made about writer-director Jeff Nichols paying homage to the late 70s/ mid 80s sci-fi of his youth; with pictures like Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter's Star Man making the rounds, but in actuality, his fourth feature Midnight Special is closer in spirit to something like Clint Eastwood's underrated drama A Perfect World.

In that film, an escaped convict played by Kevin Costner develops a bond with a young boy he's kidnapped. Here, Michael Shannon's protective father takes his son on the road in order to protect him from harm. Both are essentially chase movies. Both are human dramas taking place in rural American settings. Eastwood's film had Jehovah's Witnesses, cigarette-smoking outlaws, and trigger-happy FBI sharpshooters. Nichols is interested in religious cults, curious NSA agents, and blinding lights shooting from a kid's eye sockets. Both are cut from a similar cloth, although Nichols leans into science fiction genre trappings as a means for exploring themes he's been covering since his 2007 debut Shotgun Stories.

More than anything, though, Midnight Special sees Nichols opening up and embracing more mainstream sensibilities while never abandoning his trademark attention to Americana and existential traumas. If Take Shelter was his apocalyptic take on blue collar pressures of providing for one's family and Mud a Mark Twain-esque coming-of-age fable, then Midnight Special is about faith; specifically, belief in an escape from the mundane disappointments and human failings we all experience. It's also about the fear of parenting and the inevitable gulf between children and parents. Instead of giving us a full view of his story, however, Nichols layers information gradually in fragments so that we are simply swept along for the ride.

From the outset, not much is clear. There's an 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) whose been taken on the run by his father Roy (Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a religious community led by the always reliable Sam Shepard who believes the boy is some kind of messiah, and a geeky NSA analyst named Paul (Adam Driver) accompanying the FBI manhunt for the missing child. Nichols doesn't shy away from hard sci-fi. Unlike indie films such as Another Earth or Coherence where it's simply a backdrop for the actual story, Nichols hardwires the science fiction elements into the DNA of the overall plot so that when things do eventually dovetail into pure genre territory, he fully commits to that aesthetic. In many ways, the film plays like a more elliptical, slow-burn version of a Twilight Zone episode given weight by the sheer force of excellent acting.

Mostly, Nichols uses visual language, a Carpenter-esque synth score by David Wingo, and minimalist dialogue in order to get across emotional and thematic truths. Put bluntly, this is a film which will frustrate those wanting clear-cut answers, internal logic, and a sense that all the puzzle pieces fit together. That Nichols leans so strongly on his actors in order to get across information sans flashbacks or expository speeches is a strong instinct, but it does get him into trouble at times. Mainly, the film stumbles in its depiction of Alton as a kind of comic book origins archetype; clad in large googles and safety earmuffs while receiving radio and satellite transmissions inside his head. In a gutsy move, Nichols visualizes searing blueish lights bursting from his eyes and hands as buildings crumble and walls shake, but such stylization clashes somewhat with his naturalistic approach to setting and character. More successful is the relationship between Roy and Lucas. We understand that they have been friends for a while, had a falling out, and then came back together in order to protect this child, and Edgerton in particular gives Lucas a tender vulnerability. We may not completely understand why he would risk life and limb for Alton (aside from all the fantastical goings-on), but Edgerton makes us believe.

This is the central metaphor Nichols seems to be striving for. The belief that certain things outside our finite understanding are possible, and that there's another reality at work behind this drab mundanity and that Alton somehow has tapped into it. What exactly transpires during the third act; where military forces, the FBI, rouges from the religious community, and Driver's nebbish agent become entangled in finding and capturing the child, might not make rational sense, but it does make emotional sense. This is a story about faith; about the painful reality that children grow up and eventually sever ties with their parents, and about how we all need constructed realities in order to survive. Along the way, Nichols hits on striking images; a '72 Chevelle barreling down a rural highway road at night with the headlights off, comets raining down on an abandoned gas station, Alton's mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) reacting to her son's "transformation" during a bravura closeup near the finale. Ultimately, the combination of Spielbergian sentiment and Nichols' measured style don't quite come together, which means the inevitable emotional payoff is muted when it should be soaring. Still, it's heartening to see Nichols swinging for the fences, unafraid to look silly as his film trips over it's own lofty ambitions during the final stretch. We need more filmmakers willing to take risks like this in studio movies. We need more directors urging us to have faith in the power of cinema.