Writer-Director Jeff Nichols has made a career out telling riveting tales about lonely outsiders who don’t seem to fit in. Films like Mud and Take Shelter have also been populated with spectacular performances and a healthy dose of realism. With Midnight Special, Nichols has taken his favorite themes and styles into the science-fiction genre. The results are uniformly spectacular.
The film’s story is drenched in mystery and intrigue, so it’s a hard one to convey without giving away what makes it unique. It opens on Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), an 8-year-old who is…very odd, to say the least. He wears thick goggles and large, obtrusive headphones. A newscast informs us that he has been kidnapped from his “home,” a Texas cult compound known as The Ranch. What’s odd about this kidnapping is that he has been taken by his father, Roy (a typically excellent Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). They’re locked in a hotel room, the windows covered by cardboard. Although Roy is Alton’s father, the boy has been under the legal guardianship of the Ranch’s charismatic leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) for the past few years. It appears that the acolytes of The Ranch, including Roy, have been worshipping Alton as some kind of prophet. Because Alton isn’t just a little different. He recites strings of numbers. He speaks in languages he doesn’t know, and some that don’t even exist. He picks up cryptic satellite frequencies. It’s been said that he causes fevered visions in those he comes into contact with, visions that cause people to drop their lives and follow him. To where, exactly? His followers believe that Alton is the only one who can save them from an impending apocalypse.
The U.S. government, as is often the case, is interested in Alton for different reasons. They’ve heard Meyer’s sermons, and believe Alton may be receiving and reciting classified government data. So the FBI sends in a specialist from the NSA (Adam Driver), who believes he can decode the messages Alton is receiving and figure out their true purpose. Meanwhile, Alton’s powers are becoming increasingly unstable, and his mother (Kirsten Dunst) fears his health is weakening to the point where he may die before his preordained (and very mysterious) date with destiny.
The plot is decidedly kooky, as sci-fi plots often are, but this one is especially so. The film teases information and revelations out at such a slow pace (and sometimes not at all), that we never quite feel comfortable in its universe. This is, of course, very deliberate, but what prevents the film from going off the rails is the realism Nichols brings to the proceedings. From its tone to its storytelling and performances, Midnight Special’s odd events feel like they could be taking place in the real world. With so many sci-fi films focused on elaborate special effects and artificial chrome skylines, the grittiness that exudes through every pore of the film is a welcome change.
The world “gritty” has lost much of its meaning in our modern film vocabulary, but Midnight Special is gritty in the old-fashioned sense. It’s not deliberately “dark” or “edgy” in order to appeal to the disillusioned youths. “Gritty,” for me, means that we see the hardships the characters endure, the struggles they face. They may become literally caked in mud, or they may reveal their deep hurts in more subtle ways. Even “gritty” movies can be filled with air-brushed actors, heroes who never seem to bruise or bleed despite wall-to-wall action. This film is interested in none of that. Like Nichols’ previous work, it’s more interested in sneaking up on you, immersing you in an anything-but-ephemeral time and space.
The other aspect that really sells the film is the performances. Michael Shannon, Nichols’ go-to actor, has never been better. Despite the machinations of the complex plot, Roy remains a very committed father wanting what is best for his son, and that sort of primal instinct to put family above all else is something most of us can relate to. The same goes for Dunst, who has been experiencing sort of a career renaissance. Along with her amazing work on Fargo, she continues to master the balance between subtle, heartbreaking desperation and strong, deep-seated resolve. Edgerton and Driver deliver fine work as well, but of course a film like this lives or dies on a child performance. Thankfully, Lieberher is more than up to the task. He nails Alton’s mix of odd and endearing. He very much drives the film’s events (and is in many ways, quite dangerous), but we also never forget that he is just a kid, and he is often as afraid of himself as other are in awe of him. The 12-year-old actor has gotten an enviable amount of work in just a few years, and his performance here proves he will continue to be highly in demand.
The aspect of Midnight Special that most makes it, well…special, however is its ultimate optimism. I’ve tired of sci-fi dystopia and aliens hell-bent on our destruction, and I imagine many filmgoers have as well. The film’s central mystery is intriguing, but the journey itself is engaging primarily because the emotions driving it are simple. The bonds of family are stronger than almost any other we can form in this world, and they’re sturdy enough to weather any storm. We all desire a place where we can fit in, where we can truly call home. The film’s climax reflects these themes in ways that are both surprising and effective.
Midnight Special is a slow burn, and its esoteric plot may prove too cryptic for some viewers. But, for this sci-fi geek, this beguiling mix of E.T. and Dark City is a mystery that features potent performances and themes well worth diving into.