Midnight Special (2016)

Posted by Joel Copling on April 1, 2016

"Midnight Special" is, first and foremost, a remarkable achievement in storytelling through suggestion and implication, nurturing an audience's abilities to infer and to interpret. Director Jeff Nichols's screenplay is a delicate balancing act, for here is a mystery whose answer must, we reason, be an inevitable letdown (It is not) yet whose priorities seem to be farther-reaching than simply answering it. This is a movie that barely spells anything out for the viewer, and even when it does, the context of the answers is still kept in the dark. That's a crucial decision on Nichols's part, too, because the information that seems to be "missing" (but is not) would only provide unnecessary exposition through dialogue.

It would also underline the film's science-fiction elements to a point that the effort would be redirected upon a specific genre. That would be a mistake, because "Midnight Special," despite being about what it is about, is not so easily classifiable. It is, indeed, a tale of supernatural, featuring a young boy with mystical powers who refers to an unknown force as "they" or "them" (One imagines the first letter of either term to be capitalized). It is a road movie with a caper-like element to it, as two men and a woman lead this boy to an certain place at a specific time for some sort of prophesied event. It is an investigative procedural featuring the government officials tracking the boy and officials from the cult-like church inspired by the boy's mystical powers looking for the men.

The film is all of these things and none of them. That is because of Nichols's ultimate focus, which is aimed toward characters and not the film's effectiveness as a part of the science-fiction, road-movie, or procedural genre trappings. It is also a film about family, because one of the men leading to the boy to his destiny is the boy's biological father and the woman is the mother who birthed him. It is a movie about one's origins, and the reading of the movie as an allegory to the superhero story following its recent festival appearances earns its place in the discussion that will inevitably arise from the film's existence. And as just implied, it is a film about destiny and prophecy in the traditional definitions of the term as it applies to fantastical storytelling.

The boy is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), and his powers manifest in the form of speaking in tongues (which usually can be translated into government secrets so cloak-and-dagger that it is treasonous even to hear them) and light that explodes from his hands and eyes. The two men with him are Roy (Michael Shannon), the birth father (or so it seems), and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a friend of Roy's and a former state trooper upon whom Roy calls for his help in bringing the boy to a remote, seemingly anonymous location for some sort of event that is happening on a certain date. Along the way, they reconnect with Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), the birth mother (or so it seems).

Beyond this, it is difficult to determine what about the film should be shared, as so much of it depends upon the central mystery of who this boy is, how he came to be here, and why this location and this date are so crucial. The government is on the boy's tail, from FBI agents led by Miller (Paul Sparks), who spark interviews with members of Calvin's congregation, and NSA official Sevier (Adam Driver), whose glee at encountering such an oddball case is barely hidden. The particulars of the case that bring Miller and Sevier should not be revealed in a review of this nature, but Nichols handles them in such a way that curiosity will be an inevitability.

The climax plays its card to reveal the answers to its questions but not in the way most audiences will be anticipating. That's where their abilities (or willingness) to infer come in: The answer is entirely relative to the viewer's interpretation of these events. Where Alton comes from and why he might need to go back are, in a way, positioned as the Big Questions of this particular tale. The cast is uniformly terrific, though especially Shannon and Dunst as parents who are our entryway into the mystery and Lieberher as a very human boy who is anything but human (if that makes sense, which it will not until viewing the movie). "Midnight Special" is a fine mystery, but that is not where its achingly human, beating heart lay.

Film Information

Michael Shannon (Roy), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah), Adam Driver (Sevier), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Sam Shepard (Calvin), Paul Sparks (Miller), David Jensen (Elden).

Directed and written by Jeff Nichols.

Rated PG-13 (violence, action).

111 minutes.

Released in select cities on March 18, 2016.