We meet Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a young boy, shrouded in a bed sheet reading comics by torchlight. He’s wearing ear muffs and blue goggles. It’s a striking image. He is whisked into the back seat of a busted up Chevy by two nervous, armed and tightly-wound men (Michael Shannon’s Roy and Joel Edgerton’s Lucas). It is revealed that Alton is being trafficked across country, willingly, by these unlikely kidnappers to an unknown location, for mysterious reasons and that there are many more parties interested in finding him before he makes it.
These parties include State Police, the FEDs and the NSA, as well as members of a secretive religious sect, holed up on a ranch – themselves, it turns out, under surveillance by the U.S. Government. Why Alton is so thoroughly sought after is one of the central mysteries of the film. What is never in doubt is that few of these parties are truly interested in the boy’s well-being. To them he is either a weapon or a saviour. To Roy, he is a son.
Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature, and the first to significantly depart from the humbler rustbelt stories of his previous outings. But it would be a mistake to view this as a ‘big’ film. While it is delivered in the guise of a cross country chase, or a sci fi film, Midnight Special is, at its heart, a film about a family. Or at least it’s trying to be.
And in many ways Nichols pulls it off. He creates a wonderfully exciting and compelling world, one in which I would gladly have spent much longer. Nichols’ America is stunning to look at and, musically, lovely to listen to, and the opportunity to stew in the atmosphere and watch Michael Shannon scowl and stalk around the screen is worth the price of admission alone.
On the other hand, I am still grappling with where he takes us. The first two acts do an incredible job of raising the stakes. Keeping us guessing as to the nature of Alton, why he needs to get where he’s going, and why so many people are willing to go to such great lengths to get Alton into their possession. The film is at it’s best here when mashing together genres, toying with The X-Files ‘I Want to Believe’ school of thrills, and barrelling down back streets with nothing but night vision goggles to lead the way. Nichols makes the bold move, however, of playing one of the movie’s trump cards much earlier than you might expect, it’s a gamble which doesn’t entirely pay off, somewhat deflating the tension he’d so brilliantly established up until this point.
It’s a turn which coincides with a quite literal transition from the darkness of the first two acts into the light of the third, where questions of faith and family are brought to the fore. On the plus side, we are granted more time with Adam Driver’s agreeable NSA spook, and Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah, Alton’s mother. All time well spent. But it’s in trying to shift focus to Alton’s family situation, what that may mean for all families, and to questions of faith and belief that the film begins to falter, struggling to land its punches. And while I don’t fault Nichols instincts, I’m not sure the film banked enough in the early going for the emotional significance of the film’s final moments to be as weighty as one would hope. Although, even as he doesn’t entirely stick the landing, there is a certain grandeur in his attempts to pull it off.
Nichols has dreamt up an incredible, tangible world here, one that exists both before and after the credits roll, and for all the apparent resolution delivered as the closing minutes of the Midnight Special play out, the film remains truly enigmatic. If you wander out of the cinema and find yourself with more questions than answers, you wouldn’t be alone. And search though you might, you won’t find them, and maybe it’s better that you don’t. In the world of Midnight Special, we are only visitors.
Midnight Special is in select cinemas now.