Movie Review: “Midnight Special”

Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Egerton, Adam Driver
Jeff Nichols

Much of director Jeff Nichols’ work is about fatherhood. “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” in one form or another, show what it means to be responsible for another human being. It should come as no surprise, then, that Nichols explores that theme once again in his biggest film to date, “Midnight Special,” a thrilling throwback that’s both meditative and moving.

Roy (Michael Shannon) needs to get his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a specific location at a certain time. He’s not sure why, but he knows he has to for the sake of Alton. Roy’s son has special powers that he nor anyone else can explain, and while a religious cult – led by Sam Shepard – believes that Alton is their savior, to Roy, he’s just his son. With the help of his old friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy will do whatever he must to protect Alton, even if that means running from the government or getting into shootouts with crazy cult members.

“Midnight Special” isn’t exactly “E.T.,” although a few shots and ideas certainly pay tribute to Steven Spielberg’s classic. Like that film, Nichols tells a personal story, with its characters and themes driving the story, not set pieces. Alton might have super powers, but this is far from a superhero movie; it’s about fatherhood, finding one’s place in the world and faith.

Alton has his father and mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), but he’s never lived a normal life. During one quietly heartbreaking exchange, Roy and Sarah hold hands, watching their son play in front of them. It’s a sweet moment, but there’s an inherent sadness to the scene as Lucas cleans his gun in the background, watching the family trying to grasp onto fleeting moments of normalcy.

Roy can’t explain what’s happening to Alton, and that frightens him. “Midnight Special” is a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about allowing your children to choose their own path, as tough as that might be. How Roy deals with this pressure is selfless and inspiring, partially because the love Roy has for his son is completely believable. The character never wishes Alton was “normal” – all he wants is for his son to be safe, accepting him for who he is.

Thematically, “Midnight Special” is dense and thought provoking. Nichols, whose stories are driven far more by character than plot, basically made a $30 million picture about faith. Time and time again, characters question or choose to follow their leaders. In one scene, a cult member played by Bill Camp can’t quite understand why he was called upon for a particular mission. In the end, he’s told to blindly follow his leader, and where that gets him won’t be spoiled here. Lucas, on the other, puts all of his faith in Roy, and it makes for a moving friendship – two friends that’ll do anything for each other, no questions asked.

Nichols trusts his audience to keep up. While an investigator from the NSA, played by Adam Driver, spells out a little too much, the director is very sparse when it comes to exposition. Nichols doesn’t give the audience every single detail, nor does he need to. Certain events are better left off-screen as ghost chapters, letting the audience connect the dots.

As reserved as “Midnight Special” can be, it’s also an often dazzling experience. Nichols’ story is not without heartbreak or pain, and that’s why both the drama and spectacle are awe-inspiring, because it feels real. This is a very human, intimate story that just so happens to be a high-concept film as well.