Midnight Special.

Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special came to my attention primarily via the Grierson & Leitch podcast, with Will Leitch naming it one of his ten best movies of the year (of which I’ve now seen six). It’s Nichols’ fourth movie, although it’s been overshadowed this year by the release of his fifth film, Loving, a fact-based dramatization of the couple behind the Loving v. Virginia court case, foreshadowing the upcoming effort in Texas to end interracial marriage.

I’ve never seen a full Jeff Nichols film other than this one; I started Take Shelter, which also starred Michael Shannon, but as a father of a young daughter (as his character was in that movie) found the conceit too upsetting and never finished it. Nichols does mine some similar psychological territory here, with Shannon again playing a father trying to protect a young child from unknown threats, but Midnight Special‘s demons are real, and the story doesn’t remind you that it’s terrifying to be a parent, instead wrapping the viewer up in the mystery of what exactly young Alton can do that has both the U.S. government and a Branch Davidian-like cult trying to capture him.

When the movie opens, we see Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton, who also plays the male lead in Loving) on the run with young Alton, who wears blue goggles, reads comic books, and is apparently extremely important to the cult from which he and Roy have fled. FBI officials raid the cult compound shortly after they’ve left, also in search of Alton, who we learn has apparently been revealing codes critical to national security when he speaks in tongues, and the church’s leader incorporates them into sermons. NSA analyst Paul (Adam Driver) is one of the lead investigators looking for Alton, believing the boy may be some sort of weapon, the one fleshed-out character among the multi-agency force behind the manhunt, while the church appears desperate to get the boy back because they believe he’s their savior.

Alton brown (cropped).jpg
This is not the boy you’re looking for. (photo by Lawrence Lansing)

Most of this works well, better than the vague description might imply, because the nature of Alton’s powers is not actually relevant to the final story, and the climax only partially explains what’s going on (although what the viewer sees is what Roy and the other characters would also see). This is light science fiction, and like better works of that genre it’s focused on character and story rather than goofy sci-fi tricks. Roy and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) are all grappling with their breaks with the church, their duties to protect Alton, and their utter confusion over what he actually is and why he insists on going to a specific location at a specific date and time. Lucas faces a similar inner conflict, the nature of which isn’t revealed until the second half of the film. Even Paul has to choose between the government that employs him (and to which, we might assume, he’s loyal beyond the paycheck) and his intellectual curiosity once he meets Alton and sees some of the boy’s abilities himself.

Midnight Special is thus driven by the strength of its performances, and fortunately for the film, the two leads are very strong. Shannon’s always a presence in any film – he has a commanding look, and he broods as well as anyone – while Edgerton, an Australian actor who was one of the highlights of Animal Kingdom, delivers a more nuanced performance here, wearing his discomfort a little less on his face and putting it more in the tone of his speech. Dunst has less to do, and there’s more handwringing to her performance as the worried mother who has little more than one moment of significance in the plot – when she tells Roy what she fears will happen when Alton reaches his destination.

Where I thought Midnight Special fell apart, at least a little, was in how it merely dispensed with plot points that it no longer needed. The cult stuff just disappears with little explanation and felt to me like a red herring within the larger story. Once we pass the climax, Sarah is similarly gone from the story, and it seems like she was there primarily because Nichols had to show us Alton’s mom. Even the nature of her last scene with Alton rang a little false to me, although explaining why would spoil the ending.

And that ending, at least, deserves some praise, because Nichols avoids excessive explanation – or, God help us, monologuing – in favor of just showing us what happens. We get the merest glimpse of an answer to the mystery of Alton’s nature, and even that probably leaves you with more questions, or at least opens the door to a whole separate exposition on what exactly that other space is, than you had before. But if you were there, part of the story as Roy or Sarah or Lucas are, then this would be all you’d get. That’s admirable restraint in a film that relies a bit too heavily on chase scenes, gunfire, and off-screen threats.

Right now Midnight Special is on my top ten list for 2016, but that’s primarily because I’ve only seen ten movies from last year so far and I think this would be tenth. (I’d put it behind Hail, Caesar!.) I am assuming it’ll drop out given the films I still need/want to see.