If you like your movies neatly packaged with everything spelled out – plot, motivations, relationships and the like – then Midnight Special is probably not for you. The best sci-fi’s are loaded with ambiguity and uncertainty and that is the case here. A lot of what goes on in this latest offering from writer/director Jeff Nichols is not clearly explained, so those who like everything presented in a neat nugget of obviousness will be disappointed. Things happen that are never really contextualised, characters behave in ways that seem at odds with their role in proceedings and there are some glaring narrative gaps, but Nichols has created an exhilarating, efficient and intelligent sci-fi feature that echoes the likes of Steven Spielberg or John Carpenter yet remains completely in keeping with the independent aesthetic of Nichols’ previous films (Mud and Take Shelter). Of course, what you make of it all will be determined by your willingness to accept the more far-fetched aspects of the story.
Like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this is set very much in the present, a world that we (on the surface at least) recognise and understand. Nichols wastes no time in plunging us into the action, opening with Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) holed up in a motel room, watching a news report about the search for a kidnapped boy, the same young man who is situated between the two beds, reading comic books with a torch. The boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), is Roy’s son and so ‘special’ that he is considered a prophet by the members of a religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). The cult, it seems, worship the numeric sequences that Alton spouts, even though they have no idea what they mean. However, when it is discovered that these numbers mean something to the Government, agents are sent to find Alton and ascertain how he could possibly be privy to such information. With Meyer also despatching some heavies to retrieve Alton, the trio struggle to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, which includes NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). More Mulder than Scully in his willingness to accept that something beyond the world we know might be at play here, Sevier finds himself somewhat torn between curiosity and responsibility.
We never really understand the connection between Roy and Lucas, other than that they were school friends, with Lucas seemingly motivated more by his firsthand experience of the physical manifestations of Alton’s ‘power’ (blinding light emanating from his eyes) than any duty to Roy. We never find out why Alton was raised by Meyer instead of his parents and, having been constantly reminded that Alton is averse to sunlight – the group travel only at night – when a moment arises where Alton is suddenly cured of this affliction, it seems more a case of narrative convenience than anything else. It is to Nichols’ great credit therefore that you remain very much invested in these characters and their plight. You see, Roy is certain he understands what the numbers mean and his determination to deliver Alton to a particular place at a particular time never wavers in light of all manner of obstacles. The pace slows at times, but the cinematography from Adam Stone and the score from David Wingo work beautifully in unison to fill the myriad moments devoid of dialogue.
Shannon has appeared in each of Nichols’ previous films and he is terrific again here as a father who will do whatever it takes to save Alton from the clutches of those whose intentions are less than noble, even if it means he will never see his son again. In fact, all of the cast, which includes Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother, are impressive although the cult sub-plot is underwritten, leaving Shepard with little to do. Certainly Nichols’ most ambitious film thus far, Midnight Special ends with an otherworldly sequence that is a startling departure from the rest of the film and, like so much of what comes before, it leaves many questions unanswered. Flawed it may be, but Midnight Special is a powerful story of a father determined to do the right thing for his son no matter what the personal consequences.