“Midnight Special” is the latest evolution from writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose movies have slowly yet surely gotten a little bigger and a little more ambitious as he grows as an artist. Here he ventures into some science fiction territory to tell a story about faith and religion, but also about a father and son, and while having huge implications, this is still in many ways a small indie thriller road movie, just with a couple of bigger scenes thrown in for good measure.
Right when the movie starts, everyone is looking for an 8-year old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). He’s a special kid with some sort of powers, and he’s being tracked down by both the government and a cultish group living in a place simply called The Ranch. Taking him from a small town in Texas to a mysterious location is his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and they are taking numerous seemingly cumbersome precautions in transporting this kid until you find out why they are doing what they do. This is the kind of movie that works in a lot of ambiguity and mystery and takes its time to explain things, even then only doing so with just enough information without being burdensome, still leaving enough up in the air to get the imagination to fill in some of the little gaps.
Alton is potentially something different to different people. Several departments of the government seek him because they fear him, though an NSA agent named Paul (Adam Driver) seems more curious than afraid. That cult on the ranch is led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), and they want him because he has built up a following around what they observed from Alton, and they see him as an answer to a cosmic question they don’t even know. And then there’s Roy and later Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who see Alton as their child, a boy with needs, someone whom they love dearly and want to protect and provide for, which is what they do while being pursued.
There is a good amount of ambiguity during much of the movie, and a few things are left unanswered by the end. But that doesn’t matter too much because we do get the answer to one big question, though even then the true nature of this is still left somewhat open as there are still a few possibilities as to what really happens. And really that stuff doesn’t matter too much because the journey is where it’s at, that alternating feeling of dread and hope for the future, the long drives on the dark highways of backwoods America, hiding from the law, pursued by zealots, haunted by the unknown. While slower paced than your average thriller, this still has that continual drive that propels movies like this forward, as questions get slowly answered, characters reveal their true natures, and the story opens up to include things like a crashing satellite and the possibility of a judgement day of some kind.
“Midnight Special” has a definite 80s Amblin Entertainment kind of a vibe, as it has a similar energy and mystery as movies like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but also filtered through the movies of John Carpenter and car heavy road movies like “Vanishing Point” and “Two Lane Blacktop.” Just smashing these movies together would be one thing, but Jeff Nichols channels these influences through his own voice, and is reflected in the same kind of father-son dynamics present in his previous films, while also reflecting his attention to detail for portraying certain regions and types of people. He has been described in the past as a American filmmaker because his movies very specifically capture parts of Americana that you don’t normally see in mainstream movies, and “Midnight Special” certainly has some of that as the characters start out in Texas and travel through the Southeast.
This is a great little sci-fi movie and it is a shame that Warner Brothers, which produced it, doesn’t have much faith in it, which is evident in the limited amount of theaters it has been released in and the almost non-existent marketing. It is something different and heartfelt, an antidote to the big blockbusters that we are constantly inundated with, a nice change of pace from the obvious stories contained within the remakes and adaptations and branded bits of entertainment. “Midnight Special” is its own thing and it is very well made, well acted, and will hopefully someday find its audience because it deserves it.