Jeff Nichols, the budding auteur from Arkansas behind Take Shelter and Mud, gets a tad heavy-footed in his latest Midnight Special, a further contemplation on the Rapture, sanity, and the supernatural. Like his prior efforts, Nichols employs a fly-on-the-wall POV that offers an intimate look into the lives of his protagonists. In Shelter and Mud that technique allowed viewers inside the complex internal struggle of his characters, but in the plot-driven Midnight Special, the conflict is nearly all external. Although Nichols’ latest is more ambitious than his previous efforts, he very nearly hits the mark.
The film begins in a boarded-up hotel room. Inside, there are two armed men and a boy who sits under a blanket reading a comic book with a flashlight. The men are edgy — this is clearly some sort of last stand event, or is it? Without resistance they flee the room and climb into a classic muscle car in the lot and take off under cover of the night; the man behind the wheel even dons night-vision goggles so he can drive without headlights. As the viewers soon learn, these men have a higher calling: trying to save mankind. Unfortunately for them, the rest of the world hasn’t gotten the memo.
In small, teasing strokes, including news clips and an immersion into a doomsday cult, Nichols slowly reveals the bigger picture. Roy Tomlin (played by Nichols’ onscreen alter-ego Michael Shannon) and his able driver, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) have abducted an 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent) from the aforementioned cult. The authorities are after the two men for kidnapping the boy, and the cult, led by the venerable Sam Shepard, sporting a too small sports coat and a bad Flowbee cut, has dispatched a goon squad as well. Alton happens to be Roy’s biological progeny, but Shepard’s cult leader is the child’s legal guardian. Their differences aren’t so much about Alton’s theological upbringing so much as the kid has certainly super-human talents, one of which is the ability to shoot beams of light out of his eye. As a result, the Feds (led by Adam Driver’s nerdy greenhorn) want him too. Alton’s clearly a gifted kid, but is he even human?
Nichols, who explored a boy’s life within an edgy mystery in Mud, has in a sense, returned home to the paranoia of apocalyptic drama Take Shelter, but instead of Shannon running around and insisting that the sky is about to fall, the sky literally rains down hot metal when Alton causes a gas station to blow up thanks to his special set of talents.
The film becomes a ripple effect of perspective, but the wider Nichols pulls back, the more he sacrifices his usual sure command over his audience. In fact, late in the film there comes a moment that feels like an unearned change up, as special effects get employed liberally and we enter the extraterrestrial realms of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter.
Midnight Special‘s strength, just as it is with all of Nichols’s works, is in its enigmatic titillation, the slow simmer of small truths that build. But in Midnight Special he never quite gives those truths their earnest due. Just what drives Lucas to be so allied with Roy when the former was never in the cult, how did Roy’s ex, played by Kristen Dunst, extricate herself from the group and why did they spilt as a couple? These questions, and the matter of the miraculous making of the child, fall to the side but remain as burning as Alton’s eyes as helicopters and military troops close in on the boy and his handlers.
As usual, the one sure thing Nichols has going for him is Shannon’s burning intensity. The determination etched on the actor’s steely face, so perfect as a villain in Man of Steel and 99 Homes, never wanes, and the quiet male bonding chemistry his Roy forms with Edgerton’s Lucas is invaluable. Like Jean-Marc Vallée, Nichols is something of an actor’s director who is primarily interested in character and motivation. He departs from that a bit in Midnight Special, though the film is likely to be heralded for moving its genre underpinnings.