Midnight Special starts on a ranch turned church where we find the leader of a cult preaching to his followers shortly after dispatching two of his ‘heavies’ to retrieve someone, the sermon is then interrupted by an FBI raid where we start to establish that the child in question has cracked a government supercode and are also tracking him down. We then cut to Roy (Michael Shannon) who has abducted his son Alten (Jaeden Lieberher) from the church and is on the run to an undisclosed location after he starts to exhibit strange supernatural powers.
Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) continues what is his already critically lauded career with another well made and solid feature. Nichols likes to attack his stories in a very personal and intense manner and Midnight Special is no different, his stories are far from convoluted and he prefers to drip feed you information about the plot while the characters deal with each situation they are thrown into. Nichols does this successfully to the point where the film doesn’t necessarily stay focused on what is perceived to be the plot and equally focuses on the journey and turmoil the characters go through to get to third act. The setting is dark and moody with a constant underlying feeling of tension as everyone involved has some sort of urgency when doing what they’re doing, it’s what makes the drama have its edgy feel and is quite effective.
The performances all around were excellent. The script is constructed in a way where all the actors involved have to up their non verbal game and everyone delivers. Top accolades go to Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher and Joel Edgerton who coincidentally share the most screen time together. The Shannon/Lieberher father/son dynamic is believable but also ever changing the longer they are on the run and the closer they get to their destination. The main focus for them is that they are on the run but it is how they protect and validate each other which is what makes the journey far more interesting, there is some genuine tension and emotional progression that goes on between the two. Joel Edgerton accompanies them as a driver/bodyguard and goes about his ‘duty’ for want of a better word, with the blind faith you expect a cult to have instilled in a person but also with a conflicting and absolute loyalty to Shannon and his mission. The ‘protector’ dynamic with Lieberher changes the further along into the journey they go but in a different way Roy’s, where the child’s innocence turns almost from a vulnerability to his strength in getting to his destination. Shout out also goes to Adam Driver as a NSA agent also tracking Alten down. He comes across with an inquisitive nature and empathy that transcends the rest of the government agencies need to capture and weaponize him, it was refreshing to see a non clichéd version of law enforcement.
Considering Midnight Special is just shy of 2 hours it never really feels like it and while the plot is drip fed to the viewer there is enough going on with Roy/Alten and those looking for him that it moves at a relatively brisk pace. All the slower scenes have purpose and it is never long before something unexpected happens to them on their journey and they are off again. The use of CGI contributes to this point too. The way the majority of the scenes are shot are in a really down to earth manner and have a really human feel to them, so when Alten’s powers start to show and some imagery down the line happens, it is so different to the setting that visually it is quite encapsulating. The film does a great job in making the effects feel completely out of place within this story and shows that sci-fi films don’t have to be grand and flashy with tons of green screen to be effective.
For all the skill on show that went into its making Midnight Special it is not perfect. It’s a film that will leave you with more questions than answers, and I for one am fine with that, however there is a lot of information the viewer isn’t privy to regarding how all the characters got to where they were. Mystery is fine but by just adding a couple of conversations it could’ve made the characters stories much more well rounded and resulted in having a bigger impact later on in their journey, and not necessarily at the expense of much screen time. About two thirds of the way through the film there is also an incident with Adam Driver’s character and there is no explanation given as to why it is him that this event happens to or why he acts the way he does. Again it is the lack of information that leaves part of the story feeling a bit empty. There is also quite a large plot hole that is never addressed and while doesn’t ruin the film the lack of an explanation makes what is wonderment in other areas of the film seem like an quite an oversight here.
The central theme is that it’s about a journey, just one, but there is a balance that has been struck with a variety of characters perspectives that differ tremendously. Nichols story is proof that plots don’t have to be overarching and all encompassing, they can be insular and personal too. This is where Midnight Special succeeds. Part of the films charm that it is constructed in a way not to answer the viewers questions, and I guarantee there will be some, but it instead challenges you to look at the story in a more complex way, and for that it can be applauded and its flaws forgiven.
At the heart of Midnight Special it is part kidnap film, part family drama, part sci fi thriller and goes about itself without the usual sci-fi clichés you see in larger budget films. Aesthetically it is well made and the good performances from the cast manage to paper over some of the cracks in the story telling. Director Nichols brings a moody tense story that doesn’t drag and that leaves more questions than there are answers (which is okay).