As the chorus in its namesake folk song goes, Midnight Special will shine a light on you, especially if you’re held prisoner by a need to have your entertainment wrapped up in convenient packages with little bows on top.
I used to be like that, before The X-Files came along and made it perfectly all right to be kept in the dark about everything that’s going on; to be tantalised by an unending mystery and pleased by learning how certain things fit into place, one piece at a time.
Because, heck, life’s like that after all. Maybe it’s fitting, then, that we had a recent X-Files revival to pave the way for this oddly appealing film. By the time Midnight Special is done, it will have left you with even more unanswered questions and unresolved mysteries than at the start, but you won’t mind because the journey has been rewarding. (The most pressing question I have is, why didn’t they just go look for George Clooney?)
A road movie with strong sci-fi elements, Midnight Special comes from acclaimed writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). It concerns a father (Michael Shannon) and his young son (Jaeden Lieberher) on the run from the authorities as well as a religious cult.
Other principal and secondary characters aside, at its core the film is basically about the intensity with which the father protects his son, and the compulsion that’s drawing the boy to … wherever he needs to go. You could therefore view the film as an allegory of sorts about the paths that need to be taken by all parents and children, including the moments when fierce protectiveness is needed and the times when it is necessary to let go. (But it should also be noted that most kids don’t emit bursts of light from their eyes and hands, act as human satellite receivers of sorts, or have bizarre stuff happening to and around them. Well, outside of puberty at least.)
It’s mystifying and sometimes even creepy, but Nichols doesn’t dwell on the unnatural goings-on or exaggerate them into operatic, slow-mo events that seem to go on forever. These are woven neatly into the narrative, and the director allows them to speak for themselves, often without so much as a musical embellishment.
What Nichols does make seem epic, but still in an understated and very matter-of-fact way, is the strength of the bonds between the principal characters: Roy, the father, and Alton, the son; Roy and his associate Lucas (a taciturn Joel Edgerton, whose unchangingly resolute expression speaks volumes), though their relationship is not revealed until well into the story; and Roy, Alton and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), the boy’s mother, who was forced out of the cult years ago.
We don’t get the full back story of all their relationships. The way the principal cast members make their characters seem so lived-in is, however, quite remarkable – especially Shannon, a frequent Nichols collaborator who has also had memorable roles in the true-crime drama The Iceman and the madcap bike messenger thriller Premium Rush.
Most of the time, Alton seems to serve only as the story’s McGuffin, but young Lieberher transcends that function, making him seem both ethereal and gawkily helpless at once. His unwavering calm in the face of all the crazy stuff going on around him helps not only anchor his travelling companions, but the viewer as well.
Midnight Special bears clear signs of inspiration from the early work of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (specifically, Starman, E.T. and Close Encounters – even the main Federal agent on the case is a bookish sort played with nerdy earnestness by Adam Driver), but with an even more everyday vibe worked in.
Having said that, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes the pacing can seem so deliberate, and the proceedings so … typical, that it veers dangerously close to tedium.
But the plus side to this is that you get pulled so completely into these people’s lives, through a bare minimum of exposition, that you become invested in their struggle – even that of the nominal “bad guys” – and you’ll be on tenterhooks throughout.