When Midnight Special begins, we see Roy (Michael Shannon), Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) driving down a darkened road. They’re intent on keeping a low profile, as Alton needs to get somewhere soon or else there could be deadly consequences. It’s charmingly understated, putting forth a vibe of old school filmmaking that is rarely given any attention these days. It’s storytelling of the finest flavor, suggesting that the journey we’re about to go on with these three could evolve into just about anything. After all, acclaimed director Jeff Nichols has a flair for the familiar and yet unpredictable, a knack that he sharpens throughout what we quickly come to find out is a fairly minimalist yet constantly engaging sci-fi adventure.
You see, Alton is something of a hot property. He and his father have recently escaped a farm-based cult that sees the boy as a messiah figure for an impeding event that they see as a doomsday. They’ve gotten this idea from strange projections of light that come from Alton’s eyes that even he does not fully understand. Roy, intent on getting his son to where he is actually supposed to be when that day arrives, takes Alton on a danger filled road trip to get to an undisclosed location that he is positive will have answers. Meanwhile, NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), is tasked with finding the boy before then, as the government believes that his abilities can be used for their benefit.
There’s a whole lot of time dedicated to letting these characters breathe, and the actors do a wonderful job of fleshing them out. Shannon in particular really shines, injecting Roy with both a ruthless dedication to what he must do, and an infectious love for his son that powerfully runs through even his most charged moments. Edgerton comes off just as well in an understated turn as Roy’s more moralistic partner in crime, while Driver injects subtle humor into the film with his intelligent yet socially awkward Sevier. Most importantly though, is young Lieberher, who serves as the film’s real heart. He plays Alton as a genuinely kindhearted kid looking for his place in the world, and that vulnerability ensures that we’re rooting for him the whole time. He’s certainly one of the most likable child main characters in recent films like this. The only real weak link is Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother. Coming into the story quite a bit too late, and not really adding any weight to the group dynamic once she’s there, her character comes off as practically invisible.
Meanwhile, Jeff Nichols is admirably restrained behind the camera. The film doesn’t feel the need to drown everything out with dialogue, with many scenes efficiently bringing the story across in a visual manner. This subtle approach serves the surprisingly intense action sequences very well, as every gunshot or car swerve feels jarring and impactful. In fact, the movie is so good at telling the story without talking that the dialogue that is there can come off a bit out of place and stilted at time, as if much of it was added later in order to make the film more audience friendly. In fact, the film is so unassuming that the ultimate payoff that we spend so long waiting for isn’t quite worth it. There needed to be a bit more of a crescendo here, and the way things ultimately go feels ripped out of several movies that frankly aren’t nearly as good as this one.
Midnight Special serves as a deeply engrossing sci-fi alternative to those a little exhausted with every such film being a $200 million behemoth. Nichols once again confidently proves himself a filmmaker willing to work outside of the lines, while still delivering an entertaining and heartfelt final product. It’s only a shame that the film couldn’t deliver a payoff worthy of its set-up, and that sometimes its relaxed style can at times feel lethargic. It would be easy to compare this film to the work of several directors of years past, but if this movie is any indication, there may be a few directors making films in tribute to Nichols’ work 20 years down the line.