Writer-director Jeff Nichols career has strongly relied on intense situations done in an incredibly small way. His first film, Shotgun Stories, was Shakespearian in its internal family turmoil. His follow-up, Take Shelter, the closest of Nichols’ films to a masterpiece, was almost claustrophobic in the restrictive way it told the story of a modern day Noah of a man who may or may not be going insane by visions of an upcoming storm. With Mud, his ambition seemed to get the best of him, as the story of a boy learning about three different perspective of love while discovering a mysterious man that lived in a boat felt spread a bit too thin for the types of stories that Nichols wanted to tell.
With his fourth film Midnight Special, Nichols’ ambition is at an all-time high, with his largest film yet – a sci-fi thriller/chase film – and reminds of the early films of M. Night Shyamalan and 70s-80s era Steven Spielberg. But with this level of scale and a desire to be ambiguous almost to a fault, Midnight Specialis Nichols’ style not quite matching with the story he wants to tell.
Midnight Special is at its most thrilling when it’s on the road, which is where the film begins. We see a little boy wearing goggles and giant headphones in the middle of the night, as two men make their escape with him from a seedy hotel. The news report on the hotel TV tells us that the police are looking for Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), two men who have stolen the goggled-boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton is important enough to allow Roy to drive in the dark while wearing night vision goggles to avoid detection, or to shoot a cop in order to get away.
Roy has taken Alton from a cult that worships him, trying to get him to an unknown place at an unknown time, where something unknown will happen. The cops believe they’re chasing a kidnapper, the cult’s higher leaders are chasing Alton because they believe him to be a prophet, while the government is trailing them because Alton just may be a weapon. But Roy and Lucas simply see Alton as a boy with incredible powers who clearly has a higher purpose and that they must help him reach that purpose at any cost.
Alton’s gifts are never quite explained, becoming increasingly dangerous and questionable the further these three go down the road. He shoots blue energy beams out of his eyes, hears radio frequencies and can crash satellites out of orbit – and that’s just the beginning. But most important is that Alton’s Cyclops eye powers give people comfort. In the wrong hands, he could easily be prophet, bomb or something much more.
While Nichols’ films have all found an emotional core in their family dynamics, Midnight Special lacks that in favor of stoic contemplation and decisions about the next step to take. Shannon’s Roy is determined, with a one-track mind, but because of this, we learn very little else about who he is and his relationship with his son. Even more lacking is Kirsten Dunst as Sarah, Alton’s mother. Nichols’ often uses his female characters more as plot devices than as actual characters and the same can be said for Sarah. Unfortunately, Sarah is mostly used in conjunction with Roy to showcase the nervous uncertainty of raising a son that underlies throughout the film. Despite this, Shannon and Dunst are good with what they’re given, but they’re so thinly written, it’s hard to find much substance within their roles.
Slightly stronger is Edgerton, who is the audience surrogate of sorts, as he’s mostly as confused as we are by the powers of Alton, but also has his own layers of mysteries. Lieberher is mostly just a MacGuffin here, but he plays his fear at his situation well and can can command the entire group in a way that feels realistic. As the NSA agent Paul Sevier, Adam Driver is sympathetic and almost entire the film’s source of humor, embracing a role that probably twenty years earlier could’ve easily gone to Jeff Goldblum.
In its final third, Midnight Special tries to go all-in with answers and emotional payoff, yet the answers only raise more questions while the emotions doesn’t resonate as strongly as they have in past Nichols’ films. Like Mud, the story is spread too thin, having to balance Alton and his group of escapees, the cult that wants to find him and the government trying to track them down. By the end, none of these plots feel as whole as they should, while some threads are started then dropped altogether.
Nichols’ is excellent with layering ideas in all sorts of directions under the surface, as the idea of Alton is really just a way for Nichols’ to discuss belief in something greater, while also playing around with those ideas of parenthood and the inherent fear of not knowing what the hell to do in that situation.
Midnight Special succeeds when Nichols is playing in his wheelhouse: beautifully constructed moments, tense unpredictability and smaller, quieter character dynamics. Working with his usual cinematographer Adam Stone and composer David Wingo, Nichols’ is able to create an ambiance that is distinctive to the idiosyncratic director, while watching a few people discuss their next move in a hotel can be just as exciting as escaping from an explosive gas station with satellite debris raining down.
Midnight Special is an intriguing look at the many directions that Nichols has decided to go in his still young film career and as one of the most fascinating directors working today, it’s exciting to see where his imagination and ambition can take him. But Midnight Special is lacking in that sort of Nichols’ magic that made his earlier films so captivating. There’s still some there, just not as much as their was. Midnight Special is almost too small to reach Nichols’ ambition, too big to play to his strengths. It’s still an enjoyable, fun ride that shows how great middle-budget film making can be and showcases Nichols’ gifts that he’s still trying to hone just right, but it’s also a slightly disappointing fourth outing.