Review: ‘Midnight Special’ serves up a strangely beautiful parable on parenting

A young boy who possesses strange and difficult-to-explain powers makes his way towards a mysterious rendezvous with his father doing everything he can to protect him from anyone who might stop him.

That's it. That's the basic plot of Midnight Special, and when you boil it down that far, it sounds like something familiar, something we've seen many times before. What makes the film sing is the extraordinary control exhibited by Jeff Nichols as a filmmaker at this point, especially when he's working with Michael Shannon, who has given some of his finest performances when working with Nichols.

That continues here. Michael Shannon plays Roy, and when we meet him, he's on the road with his childhood best friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his little boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). It's not clear at first why they're running, where they're coming from, or where they're going, and Nichols does a very nice job playing with ambiguity here, definitely leaning towards the less-is-more school of storytelling. Even as the film concludes, there are plenty of questions, some of them big, some small, that are still unanswered, and it's perfectly acceptable.

Nichols earns that by telling the story in such an emotional way. This is a very raw, sad, and beautiful film about faith and fatherhood, and it feels just as grounded and big-hearted as the other films Nichals has made, like Take Shelter or Shotgun Stories or Mud. It's hard to watch Midnight Special and not acknowledge its stylistic nods to '70s-era Spielberg and, in particular, John Carpenter's Starman. Nichols is definitely making something that's of a tradition, but it's his version, his take on what this kind of story means.

Honestly, you can ignore this as a science-fiction film completely and just read it as a beautiful metaphor for the journey of parenting, and it's just as potent, just as beautifully realized. Alton isn't just important to his father or his family or his immediate community. It's clear that there is something special about him, and there's a special investigator named Sevier (Adam Driver) who is trying to figure out the puzzle in time to play some key part in Alton's story. Roy's entire purpose is focused on keeping Alton out of the government's hands, and out of the hands of the insular religious community that Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) were part of. Early on, Lucas makes a split-second choice that defines everything that comes afterwards, and because of who he is, it's a choice that is particularly haunting. He's willing to cross those lines for Roy, though, and Roy's willing to ask him because he'd do anything for Alton.

While you are given some answers at the end of the film, this isn't about that conclusion. That's not why Midnight Special packs such a punch. It's because Roy and Alton and Joel end up forming such a powerful emotional core team. And if you read the film as metaphor, then it's a particularly sad and powerful conclusion. Every single day you are responsible for raising a child, you have an opportunity to make decisions that help that child or that hurt them, and those choices frequently are diametrically opposed to your own best interests or your own happiness.

That push and pull is part of the juggling act of parenting, and both Shannon and Dunst play their roles like they are carved open, their hearts bare. Lieberher earns all of it with a sensitive, subtle performance as this very special boy, and it helps that he's playing opposite Shannon and Dunst at the absolute top of their game. I love Driver's performance here, and what should be the most annoying and exposition heavy stretches of the film are made interesting by virtue of the way Nichols writes the character and the way Driver plays him. Edgerton is equally good as a good man in a hard situation, morally torn apart by doing the things he does.

Adam Stone's a key player in the Jeff Nichols filmography so far, having shot every one of his films, and his work on Great World Of Sound and Compliance also mark him as one of the most tasteful and controlled photographers working right now This film has a sleek, cool visual signature, always pushing forwards, always on the move, restless and beautifully composed. It is an aesthetic pleasure, even removed from the storytelling and the character work. It's just beautifully made. David Wingo's score is perfectly married to the film, and it leaves room for a real emotional reaction instead of bullying you into one. It's that kind of thing that marks Jeff Nichols as one of the guys who is pushing to make the films that matter to him and in the way he wants to make them. Sarah Green and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones are building a slate of films that need that sort of tireless champion. Nichols seems like he's making far more accessible films than Terrence Malick, but it still feels like Midnight Special is a film that required producers who were willing to push for something that doesn't play by typical rules.

Looking back at this review, it sounds like I'm describing something formal and chilly and academic, but that's not true at all. Midnight Special is just a damn good movie. That's what Nichols does best. He delivers fully on the particular story he sets out to tell, and he does it with this nimble visual ability. He knows when one image counts more than a full scene of dialogue, and restraint is why it really hurts when he lands one of his powerful emotional punches. I was left reeling a bit from my viewing, and excited to see Nichols continue to evolve from movie to movie. If he continues to grow from here, it's going to be something special, indeed.

Midnight Special is in theaters this Friday.