Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special uses a simple, thrilling chase scenario to ruminate on death, loss and hope
Midnight Special Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Bill Camp and Sam Shepard
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 52 minutes
(out of four)
Inevitability is a bit like prophecy. And when you put a finite deadline on it, the two are practically indistinguishable. You can prepare for it, start to make arrangements for it. You can tell other people about it - or, maybe you'd prefer to keep it to yourself. You embrace it, or fear it. You race toward it or run from it. But it's coming. The inevitable always does.
It can be scary, that knowing, that believing. Especially if what's in front of you is something permanent, as it is in Jeff Nichols' sterling Midnight Special. As for the what itself ... well, that's a bit more illusory. What's known to the characters is exceptionally little. What's known to us is even less. Nichols pares down the specifics until all that remains are primal instincts. Protect. Survive. Run.
What we have is a date - just a few days away from when the film picks up. Everything revolves around that date, at an unspecified location. An entire religion has been built upon it. A nationwide manhunt is entirely focused on it. And all they really know is it has something to do with a boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses abilities beyond anyone's comprehension.
The film is ostensibly a sci-fi chase thriller - Carpenter in its composition, Spielberg in its storytelling, yet very specifically Nichols' own, yet another profoundly humanistic study of Middle American families, an intimate character drama with the emotional heft of an epic. In this, his fourth and highest-budgeted effort, Nichols only uses the genre details as the trimming, refusing to let it get overwhelmed by spectacle or bogged down by extraneous information. Because what becomes clear is that he's not concerned with crafting a fantastical storybook tale, but in finding a roundabout way to examine death and loss. It's true that Alton has special abilities - we see blinding white shafts of light shoot out of his eyes at various times; we hear testimonials from those who have looked into those very eyes, and seen things they couldn't imagine and can't describe, except to say they are miraculous; we know that he knows things he couldn't possibly know. It is equally true that he is dying. Or at least a certain equivalent of dying, whatever that may be.
When we see him over the course of a few days, we see someone physically deteriorating - his appearance gaunt, with sunken eyes and sunken cheeks - as if living out the final days of a terminal illness. When we see his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), being willing to do virtually anything - to anyone - in order to keep his son out of the hands of the authorities (not to mention the members of the Texas-based cult from which he was "kidnapped"), we recognize the lengths we would go to help a loved one in pain. When we hear Roy insist that Alton is meant for something - that something is going to take place on that specific day, at that specific location - we see ourselves trying to find meaning in the death (and life) of a child, or a parent, or a sibling. Watching someone you love slowly disappear is a unique kind of cruelty.
In literal terms, that's not exactly what's happening in Midnight Special, but the cues are all pretty clear. Throughout the film - as Roy, Alton's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and Roy's loyal accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) make their way across the country, from outskirt motels to suburban homes, constantly trading one vehicle for another - concerns keep being raised about Alton's health. Is he even going to make it? Danger seems to always be just behind them. Strange, inexplicable occurrences follow them wherever they go. And all the while, Roy - confused, desperate, utterly determined - is steadfast in his belief that his boy is here, at this moment in time, for an important reason. A necessary reason. There's a powerful moment when Sarah lays out in plain language exactly what they might be headed toward, but Roy doesn't want to think about it - it's too specific, and too painful. All that matters is getting Alton where he needs to go.
The film works as well as it does because, despite the potential for the material - once we see it for what it really is - to be profoundly depressing, Nichols imbues it with a sense of otherworldly splendor. This is not just a rumination on loss but a celebration of the kind of love that makes loss hurt so much in the first place. Having an actor like Shannon is essential, as he can get across so much so quietly, so effortlessly. He's even more restrained here than he was in Nichols' masterful Take Shelter. There's a moment where he shares a look with his son - just a look, nothing more - and Shannon makes it go for miles. (I should note that, despite a smaller role, Adam Driver's performance here is Shannon's equal, starring as the NSA operative tasked with locating and apprehending Alton Meyer. Driver has such extraordinary cadences of speech; he delivers lines the way no one else would deliver them.)
The sci-fi elements are kept deliberately ambiguous - which is a good thing because the film doesn't seem nearly as confident in its moments of explanation as it does elsewhere. One scene in particular, in which Alton gives us a basic rundown of what's really happening, falls oddly flat - like it comes across a perfunctory explanation for something that was doing perfectly well as an allegorical mystery. There is a visually spectacular sci-fi setpiece late in the film that works much better than any of those moments of exposition. And of course the film has plenty of its storytelling roots in classic sci-fi. While many have brought up Carpenter's Starman and Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind as reference points, I found it similar in many ways to Minority Report, with Alton filling the dual roles of missing son and pre-cog.
This film joins a certain pantheon of movies - Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go is another - that uses a fantastical but heartbreaking sci-fi premise to confront mortality and grief in ways that more straightforward drama can't. Midnight Special is thrilling on its surface, and devastating underneath it.