What if there were something entirely new in this world? What if it were your son? The idea that your child might be a semi-messianic, unprecedented creature of ungovernable, infinite potential is fairly common among parents, but what if it were proven to be a literal fact? Great science fiction is almost always founded on such simple but paradigm-shifting what-ifs, and the fourth feature from director Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” “Mud,” “Take Shelter“) brings this premise thrumming and throbbing to life. Structured as a low-key chase movie, unfolding with the dark urgency of a conspiracy thriller, living mostly not in your heart or even your mind but in the hairs on the back of your neck, “Midnight Special” actually emerges most resonantly as a mournful homage, or maybe a psalm, to the primal instincts of fatherhood.
The set-up is swift, economical, and deceptively laconic for how much information is conveyed. Two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Liebeher), are holed up in a motel room in which the windows have been blacked out — even the peephole in the door is covered up. They are on the run, the burbling TV informs us, and wanted. Elsewhere, the leader of an odd sort of doomsday cult, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), watches these same reports and infers the same thing that the two men did: there is now a third party in this chase, and it is the government. He dispatches a lieutenant to find the boy at all costs, just as the FBI closes in on a raid of his “Ranch,” and begins to interrogate the cult members, interrupted by the arrival of a special analyst from the NSA, Sevier (Adam Driver). Back at the motel the men and the boy take off again as the eyes of the receptionist flicker from their departing car to the TV screen and she reaches for the phone.
It’s a remarkably arresting and skillful opening, spare, lean, precise, but evoking a world, or maybe even worlds, outside its tight frames. And while much has been made of the debts the film owes to John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (and occasionally even James Cameron‘s “The Abyss,” if you ask me) its mood — and it is overridingly a film of mood — is all Nichols.
It is very recognizably the same spare, intelligent style that made “Take Shelter” so compelling and that created in “Mud” a story that meant so much more than the things that happened within it. But this sense that the film has been sculpted out of a much larger whole, with everything extraneous removed, does mean that when we come across a moment of cliche, or of excessive exposition, it almost tangibly jars. Sinister minister Meyer leaning back with a leer and telling the FBI man, “You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” or an overfamiliar sequence of passersby looking to the skies in amazement, or a CGI-heavy end sequence that feels instantly dated even though it most obviously refers to movies released in the past couple of years: these passages seem to come from a different, more generic, more obvious film.
But for the vast majority of the runtime, the film we get is masterful in its control. Aided by a thrillingly immersive score from David Wingo, and wonderful twilight/dawn, low-contrast photography from DP Adam Stone, it unfolds with a kind of relentless linearity (once you accept the basic premise, it is remarkably un-twisty in its revelations and reveals). And once again, in constant collaborator Michael Shannon, Nichols finds the perfect engine to power this slender story forward — was ever any actor so able to project an aura of utter conviction, even when faced with the impossibly wrenching eventuality that the only way to save his child might be to let him go?
In fact all the cast are excellent: Kirsten Dunst, as Alton’s mother, is maybe given less to work with, but that in itself becomes an interesting choice that points to Nichols’ primary concern being with the father/son relationship, even to the exclusion of the mother. Driver brings his slightly ironic sensitivity to make the role of Sevier a leavening element in so much that is sober and unapologetically sincere. “St. Vincent” star Liebeher may have to play the 8-year-old-boy version, essentially, of a maguffin, but he is perfectly contained as the locked little enigma at the center of this storm. And special kudos have to go to Edgerton (which is a good sign for Nichols’ other 2016 title “Loving,” in which he stars) who has maybe the most touching role of all, as the childhood friend of Roy’s whose complete, unquestioning loyalty to both Roy and Alton is almost crushingly moving, for being largely unspoken and unmotivated by consanguinity.
The blunt ordinary decency of Edgerton’s performance makes us believe in Alton’s uniqueness because this uncomplicatedly good man might suddenly be willing to die, or to kill, to protect him. And elsewhere too it is the way that Nichols weaves the desperately strange into the prosaically normal that gives the film such an uncanny atmosphere. This is a mysterious story illuminated with Carpenter-style moments of beyond-ken spookiness, but it is also told in the scruffy details of gaffer tape, gas stations, and cheap plastic swimming goggles.
With so much quiet power purring under the hood, there are flaws: the cult aspect, with its false prophets and promises of salvation for the faithful, all but disappears leaving a more straightforward, less interesting Christian allegory as a kind of unchallenged alternate reading, and the machinations of the plot, simple as it is, sometimes strain credulity. Most damagingly, the ending is a let down, it can’t be denied — where before Nichols’ third act dismounts have been divisive, here, in his first studio film, it feels simply compromised. A sudden and very rare instance of showing us too much, of visualizing something that would have been more powerful left to the imagination, and a rush to a Spielbergian conclusion when the unfolding drama beforehand has been so gruffly unsentimental, so un-Spielbergian — it all feels forced and out of sync with the film prior. But it already feels like the ending is the thing that will recede quickest from memory. The mood lingers, and the memory remains, like the memory of the strangeness of long nighttime rides in the backseat of your parents’ car with the streetlights rhythmically streaking the roof.
The bigger the questions you ask, the less likely it is you can answer them in any satisfying, definitive way, and the human, existential, metaphysical questions that “Midnight Special” poses, if you care to look for them, are enormous. So it is, in the end, to Jeff Nichols’ great credit that there are times during the film when you almost find yourself having faith that he will bring us there, to where the answers are. He doesn’t, but how could he? No one ever has. Instead we get this half-light journey toward that destination, through territory thick with wonder and dread, out where those two things are perhaps the very same. [B+]