The strangest thing about Midnight Special is that it reminds me of at least 10 other movies I’ve seen and yet still feels unique. Usually when we say a director “plays by his own rules” it means that director is gleefully giving the finger to convention, creating a sort of shrine to their own rebellion. The arthouse is full of studies in non-traditionality and the conventionally unconventional, those cinematic septum piercings. Even more interesting to me are the directors who aren’t pissing on the rule book so much just not acknowledging that it exists.
Jeff Nichols does his own kind of a thing in Midnight Special. It’s grounded, but relies heavily on the fantastic, with elements reminiscent of so many different works that it feels more coincidental, more idiosyncratic than derivative. It is, as they say, true to itself. It’s kind of like ET. It’s vaguely reminiscent of The Abyss or even X-Men. There are some overt Superman parallels. But it’s not that much like any of them, nor, frankly, all that similar to Mud or Take Shelter, Nichols’ two previous movies. (For what it’s worth I was a fan of Mud, less so of Take Shelter).
The plot concerns a proverbial special child, Alton, played by Jaeden Lieberher, who despite his badly spelled name is probably the most competent child actor since Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland (or, come to think of it, Tye Sheridan in Mud, though he was a little older). Alton is on the run from multiple government agencies and a weird religious cult because he can hear satellites or something. He wears blue swim goggles and never goes out during the day, and sometimes shoots beams of light from his eyes and sets off car alarms. You know, typical chosen one stuff. His protectors in this journey are his birth father, played by Michael Shannon, and his father’s friend, played by Joel Edgerton, a kind of pro-bono professional security guard. Their goal is to get Alton to a specific place, at a specific time, whatever the costs, without him getting kidnapped by the various entities hunting for him.
If Midnight Special was your typical popcorn sci-fi, it would do far more explaining. Who Alton is, which characters have his best interests in mind, who the bad guys are and what their evil plan entails. It would clearly explain its rules. Instead it throws you the occasional crumb, world building with only the briefest exposition, just enough to get you to care. In that way it’s sort of like Lost (with better acting and far less obnoxious characters) or The Leftovers, where the hunt is more important than the quarry. Conversely, if Midnight Special were more arthouse, it’d spend a lot more time reminding you that Alton is a metaphor and pondering the various levels. It’d be much more concerned with what the aurochs represent than the visceral experience of running from them, so to speak. It’s about fatherhood! It’s about authoritarianism! It’s about religion!
They’re there if you want to see them, but Midnight Special doesn’t belabor any of its metaphors. It’s earnest and heartfelt, but not especially introspective. It’s enjoyable on a visceral level without the usual over-explaining and hand holding.
The level of craft probably has as much to do with maintaining Midnight Special’s tension as the lack of exposition. Say what you will about Nichols’ narrative choices, the dude can shoot a scene. Not many directors can make on-screen gunshots and car crashes feel truly violent. Nichols joins a small group that includes Michael Mann and Denis Villenueve, with teeth-rattling shotgun sequences that left my armrests sweaty and my sphincter tight (no easy feat – normally my sphincter is super loose).
Likewise, I doubt a different cast could carry Midnight Special like Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and Jaeden Lieberher (with supporting turns by Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and Paul Sparks, who’s been gradually revealing a versatility that I never would’ve expected when he was still Mickey on Boardwalk Empire). Nichols, like a lot of directors, clearly has a thing for steely blue eyes. Bone-faced Shannon is once again the standout, seemingly afflicted as he is with a benign strain of acromegaly that lends him a glowering yet endearing gravitas (he’s an X-Man of acting!). His performance in Midnight Special is one of his best, a unique combination of menace, hurt, moral confusion, and fatherly tenderness. The guy is just good.
But as much as Midnight Special keeping us on a need-to-know basis keeps it intriguing, and keeps us living viscerally in the moment, there comes a point at which every “big mystery” narrative has to either lay its cards on the table or risk becoming a pointless copout. Jeff Nichols isn’t a copout guy. He lays his cards on the table, but Midnight Special‘s resolution isn’t quite a home run. It doesn’t make me ashamed for caring, it just doesn’t quite add an extra level of understanding to what came before. It was intense while it lasted, but it doesn’t inspire enthusiasm for a second viewing. If you’re the type that loves finding meaning and symbolism, there’s an ethereal ambiguity to Midnight Special‘s resolution that allows you plenty of space to dream. A sort of bring-your-own-baggage ending. For me, it felt like Nichols didn’t quite stick the landing. But hey, it was plenty thrilling when he was in the air.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.