After writer/director Jeff Nichols’ first two features, Take Shelter and Mud, I was ready to go see his new film, Midnight Special, even if the reviews were somewhat weaker. The reviews are basically right: This isn’t as strong a film as the other two, but I was still very glad to have seen it.
There’s something about the Nichols aesthetic I find appealing. And even though this movie resolves, plot-wise, in a rather conventional way, the execution is rather non-conventional, for better and worse.
The story concerns young Alton (the very talented Jaden Lieberher, St. Vincent) who has been kidnapped, and is now the subject of a manhunt involving the US government and a bizarre religious cult out of Texas. The twist being that he’s been kidnapped by his father (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter, Mud) who’s trying to get him to a particular location, with the help of his mother (Kirsten Dunst, The Two Faces Of January, Melancholia) and a pal (Joel Edgerton, Black Mass, The Gift).
So, very solid acting, indeed. Adam Driver, inheritor of the Darth Vader mask, looks a lot more at home as a science nerd here, as well.
It turns out that Alton tends to speak in tongues, and sometimes those tongues include “coordinates of top secret military things”, which is what has attracted the government’s attention. It also turns out that, when he’s exposed to the light, odd things happen. Hence the “midnight special” of the title, as Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Edgerton) drive around at night and hole up in motel rooms during the day where they can cover up the windows.
The other element here is that Alton is sick. Dying even. Roy figures his only hope is to get to that location at the right time, though he has no idea what will happen when he gets there.
If this is starting to sound familiar to you then you’ve probably seen Starman or Escape to Witch Mountain or maybe Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all of which have plot similarities to this film. Where this film differs is that Alton is essentially a MacGuffin, with no particular insight to offer on the topic of being human. By contrast, Jeff Bridges’ Starman is also a MacGuffin, but he’s a running commentary on human nature as well.
Alton seems to literally be a child, with a child’s insights, and not a lot of those, really. He’s just different. He becomes more a test of “would you do what is right, given circumstances very aligned against you?” This provides a good showcase for the other actors and prevents the film from falling into cliché.
Of course, clichés exist for a reason: Because they’re usually successful at conveying what needs to be conveyed. And at the climax of the film, Nichols splits up Roy and Alton because, logically, Roy needs to distract the bad guys. That leaves Sarah (Dunst) and Alton with the final emotional scene, and us without a real main character.
One trick these movies sometimes use is a “Is he or isn’t he?”, like with the sub-par K-PAX. Nichols, rather nicely, leaves no doubt about what’s what, in a bravura conclusion that is satisfying, even if we don’t get our dramatic character arc.
The Boy did not like it as much as I did, but he did like it. It’s definitely more Take Shelter than Mud, but if you liked the former, you’ll probably enjoy this.