In “Midnight Special,” writer-director Jeff Nichols (“Mud”) pays homage to the greats before him. Here, he’s channeling Steven Spielberg, creating a science-fiction chase film that strongly echoes that director’s 1977 masterpiece “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In “Midnight Special,” we follow Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, “St. Vincent”), a boy with special supernatural powers, and his father Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”) who have escaped from an East-Texas religious cult that has claimed the boy as its savior. Roy is joined by his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton, “The Great Gatsby”) and, later, his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, “Melancholia”). As the boy and his family move across the United States, from Texas to Louisiana and Florida, they are being followed by cult henchmen and by the government, specifically Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, “While We’re Young”), an NSA analys, who is concerned by the overlap of the boy’s spoken prophecies and secret government security codes.
Nichols is a great director, but he’s an even better writer. From the opening moments of the film, we’re constantly on the move. Nichols dispels with the exposition; important information comes as necessity demands. It’s a risky choice, but Nichols manages to keep the story engaging and just beyond total comprehension, slowly revealing information and details until the epic finale.
Meanwhile, “Midnight Special” is sparse. In both their plotting and dialogue, Nichols creates stories from the moments that occur between words and actions. As a result, his works (like the pre-apocalyptic “Take Shelter” and the previously mentioned Arkansan fairy tale “Mud”) can be polarizing, relishing with delight in the time that elapses before something meaningful happens. Nichols thrives on the unspoken and undone.
“Midnight Special” is very much a Nichols film in style, but something feels different. Maybe it’s that this is his first film with a major studio, Warner Bros. Maybe it’s that the characters are taking a back seat to the story, rather than the story serving the characters. Nichols is far from regressing; he’s one of our finest contemporary filmmakers. Yet, the film — particularly the ending — falls just short of expectations. Nichols decides to shift focus at the end, attaching Alton to Sarah, not Roy, which extends the film’s theme of fatherhood to parenthood yet leaves the story with a character with whom we’re not entirely familiar. We’ve been trained to understand how Michael Shannon acts for much of the movie, not Kirsten Dunst. And to rely on her for the final scenes is uneven.
Nichols’s sparseness indicates that he intended to create an audiovisual work. And “Midnight Special” is certainly that. Nichols is exploring parenthood, going beyond the typical challenges of the job and instead asking, “What if something was truly wrong or different in the child?” The film’s visuals are so strong, particularly any moment at which Alton is experiencing pain or his special powers, that any shortfalls could easily be overlooked. David Wingo’s score booms and thumps, propelling the story forward, perhaps faster than we — or a parent — would like to go with their child. Parenthood is terrifying, thrilling, rewarding and, however tired the metaphor is, a ride. Thankfully, Nichols took us along on his.