A Review of Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special: A Solid Sci-Fi Drama about Family and Faith

Midnight

Film: Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Primary Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Paul Sparks, Sam Shepard
US Release Date: 18 Mar 2016 (limited, anyway)

An Amber Alert is issued for a missing Texas child. The boy is 8 years old. He has brown hair and blue eyes, but the local news stations are unable to provide a photo of him. His name is Alton Meyer (Lieberher). He was kidnapped from a cultish ranch by his father, Roy Tomlin (Shannon) with the help of a man named Lucas (Edgerton).

Alton is a quiet, intelligent boy, and his calm demeanor suggests that he may have been rescued rather than abducted. He wears blue goggles and sleeps during the day. He can’t be exposed to sunlight either. He also picks up all sort of information (government and otherwise) from satellites, radios, and more. He knows things he has no business knowing. He occasionally shoots blue light from his eyes. When this light connects with the eyes of other people, they see and feel things unlike anything they’ve ever known.

Roy and Lucas—and eventually, Alton’s mother Sarah (Dunst)—are on a mission to get Alton to some specific location by a specific date. Exactly why Alton needs to be there is not clear to any of them, but they all know that it’s important, and they are willing to risk their lives to make it happen.

As Roy and Lucas do their best to look after Alton while avoiding the authorities, the FBI interrogates the cult that he was once a part of, because classified government communications have been finding their way into leader Calvin Meyer’s (Shepard) sermons. An NSA agent named Paul Sevier (Driver) interviews Meyer, who claims that all of the information came directly from Alton. And as Sevier talks with more members of Meyer’s cult, it soon becomes apparent that they all view Alton as some sort of messiah.

Midnight Special is not perfect, but there is something special about it all the same. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter), the film presents an engaging parental drama under the guise of a science-fiction thriller. For all the inexplicable phenomena that it presents, Midnight Special is about faith, feelings, and family more than it is about superhuman powers or fantastical ideas. While not all of the script is as rock-solid, Nichols manages to present viewers with a distinct story that, for all its mysteries, still manages to feel familiar and approachable. Even if there are aspects of Midnight Special that could be considered lightweight, the film remains engaging and enjoyable all the same.

Midnight Special is not a typical sci-fi thriller. Though it’s far from a comedy, the film is lighter and less noticeably pessimistic (or nihilistic) than much of today’s science fiction. The film also lacks the cold and grandiose feel of genre blockbusters. Nichols uses action and fantasy elements throughout the film, but he does so judiciously, and the mysteries surrounding Alton’s abilities never take up so much space that they become the heart of the story.

There is enough interpretative potential in Midnight Special for different viewers to leave it having had very different experiences. For me, it’s primarily a tale about parents who love their unusual—and indeed, unfathomable—son enough to let him go. They do what is best for him, even though it causes them pain. They don’t question him. They have faith in him, because they love him. They listen, and they do their best, and they accept that they can’t ever fully control or know him. There’s more to the film than that, but that’s how I understand it.

Nichols’s focuses his sci-fi on a small handful of individuals; and by keeping the scope of his film relatively small, he increases its narrative efficacy and emotional power. There is no great evil in Midnight Special that threatens to destroy all of mankind. There is no universal human flaw that needs to be exposed. There is no real hopelessness either. Instead, there is a humble, and affecting tale about parenting, growing up, and about having faith in the ones we love. Instead of overwhelming his viewers or plunging them into despair, Nichols chooses to stimulate their imaginations while tugging at their hearts and while putting an only slightly sad smile on their faces.

When it comes to storytelling, Nichols reveals a steady hand and demonstrates that he doesn’t feel compelled to meet certain viewer expectations. Midnight Special may not be what many of today’s audience expect, but it also doesn’t try to be anything but itself. Nichols also has enough confidence in his story to reveal information gradually and naturally. He doesn’t overburden viewers with extraneous explanatory details that—while they might dispel certain questions—would do nothing to strengthen their emotional connection with the film. By withholding information about Alton and his other characters, Nichols also works to keep viewers as rapt as possible.

That said, there are places in Midnight Special’s script where additional information could have helped. Nichols is right not to slow his film’s pace by allowing it to become bogged down in the details of Alton’s upbringing, his origins, or of life on the ranch. However, the film may have been stronger if he’d taken the time to imbue his characters with a bit more depth. Throughout the film, I wanted to know more about both of Alton’s parents, and I especially wanted to hear more from Roy. A lot of Midnight Special takes place below the surface—in the interactions and glances shared between Roy, Lucas, Sarah, and Alton; and while this aspect of the film is largely effective, it would have been improved by some more overt character development.

Another aspect of the script that may inspire disappointment is its ending. As solid as much of Midnight Special is, its resolution is rather vague, and it’s unclear just how purposeful the details of it are.

And yet, even if Midnight Special’s final section may come as a letdown, I am not too bothered by it. The film’s aims are simple, and they have much more to do with bare emotions and wonder than they do with anything else. Those who are looking for more complexity and specificity will be the most bothered by the film’s refusal to delve too deeply into the details of its own tale, but those same people probably won’t like the rest of the film that much either. The end could have been better (though I’m not exactly sure how), but the resolution of its various mysteries doesn’t matter nearly as much as the people, the relationships, and the belief at the center of them. And besides, if no one who loves and tries to help Alton tries to fully understand him or to comprehend the precise nature of his abilities, then why on earth should viewers?

While none of the performances in Midnight Special are spectacular, they are all quite solid, and the film’s cast should be counted among its strengths. In my experience, Shannon and Edgerton are almost always good, and they both do quality work in Nichols’s film. This is especially true concerning Shannon (who was seen recently in 99 Homes); even when Nichols’s script fails to add much depth to Roy, Shannon manages bring a noticeable degree of weight and emotion to his scenes. At the same time, Dunst—who was particularly impressive in this year’s season of Fargo—also does a decent job with the material she is given, as does young Jaeden Lieberher.

For what it’s worth, I also enjoyed the dark, slick tone of Midnight Special. In addition to its story, such adjectives also apply to its images and to its score.

I knew virtually nothing about Midnight Special before going to see it. I hadn’t seen a trailer for it. I hadn’t even seen a promotional still. Fortunately, my ignorance was more than amply rewarded. I didn’t know what to expect from the film before watching it, and I was regularly surprised and delighted over the course of its running time. Though it doesn’t feel quite right to declare Nichols’s latest a “great film,” it is a surprising one. Parts of it do remind me a bit of The Twilight Zone and Looper (2012), but the majority of Midnight Special feels distinct and refreshing. The film is heartfelt, and it doesn’t fit any one particular mold—and that fact makes it worth watching even when the script is simpler or less developed than some might want.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! If you haven’t seen Midnight Special, I’d encourage you to give it a look (and feel free to return here with comments when you do).

I recently rewatched The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in a couple of years. I’ve seen the movie more times than I know, and I’m intimately familiar with Tolkien’s novels. And yet, for some reason, this time around, Jackson’s film affected me much more than usual. This, along with the fact that I just really like Lord of the Rings, has me thinking that I should also rewatch The Two Towers and The Return of the King. If I do, I may try to make a post discussing my personal ranking of the trilogy—if I can even come up with one—so if that’s something you’d be interested in, let me know.

You should also follow this blog on twitter. (Just do it.)

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