‘Midnight Special’ Review

Family and faith versus the feds in a Spielbergian thriller

Midnight Special
Art by Jeff Victor
April 1, 2016

Midnight Special is a film that touches on many subjects. Faith and freedom and fear and the federal government’s watchful eye, for starters. But director Jeff Nichols’ latest—like his previous features, Take Shelter and Mud—is mainly a film about family disintegration and repair, about the stresses a family endures and the lengths we will go to keep our wards safe.

Take Shelter (2011) was either the best film about mental illness ever made or a movie about the danger of treating prophets like lunatics; either way, it was also a movie about a man straining to protect his family from unspeakable, devastating harm. Mud (2013), meanwhile, focused on the struggles of a boy growing up in a breaking home yearning for someone to protect him, someone who could provide a source of stability and safety in life. If that someone happens to be a murderer on the run, so be it.

As Midnight Special begins, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) also happens to be on the run. Flanked by his buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy listens as the TV announces an Amber Alert: citizens are told to be on the lookout for Roy, who is suspected of kidnapping a young boy: his son, in fact. The stations don’t have pictures of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), but we can tell there’s something strange about the boy by the get-up he’s wearing.

Swimming goggles cover Alton’s eyes; earmuffs, like the kind you might find on a gun range, adorn his ears. As we see shortly, this is no idle precaution. Alton—who Roy has taken from the cult that worships him—and his protectors are forced to travel by night, and not solely because the cops and the cult are after them. A mysterious light shoots out of Alton’s eyes when he is over stimulated, and he picks up satellite transmissions in his head, spitting out longitudes and latitudes from time to time.

Alton’s condition calls to mind a sort of supernatural autism—oversensitivity to aural and visual stimuli and a felicity with numbers suggests he’s somewhere on the spectrum—as does his father’s panicked reaction to it. He just wants to heal and protect his boy, and no one, not the government agents chasing him or the god botherers trying to get the kid back, is going to stop him. To do that, he’ll have to reunite with the boy’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and take them all to a location derived from the coordinates Alton has plucked from the sky.

One of Nichols’ great strengths is casting. Throughout his career, he has cobbled together utterly compelling visions of the white working class, using actors whose faces and postures feel lived-in and real. Shannon has been the common thread throughout Nichols’ oeuvre (they’re reteaming again in Loving, coming out later this year). He’s wonderful as the gruff-but-loving father, a towering presence whose slightly askew eyes manage to convey fear and hope, love and anguish. Edgerton, all flat top and beady eyes, nails the role of family protector, while Dunst is suitably deglamorized, equipped with a mid-torso-length braid and drab garb. Of course, Sam Shepard, who plays the cult’s leader, is practically the platonic ideal of "weathered working class."

But it’s Adam Driver (most recently seen in Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens) who often feels like the key to the film’s success. There’s something deeply humorous about the fact that the biggest star to emerge from HBO’s Girls is a lanky, slightly goofy-looking former Marine. But his stilted line deliveries and jug ears are perfectly suited for the NSA analyst trying to crack the mystery of Alton and his family.

Midnight Special sometimes feels a bit underdeveloped, especially in its treatment of the cult from which the Tomlins are fleeing. They serve to drive the plot forward but feel thin, like cardboard cutouts that walk and spout exposition when needed. That thinness aside, Midnight Special works nicely, coming across as a lower-budgeted Close Encounters of the Third Kind or a smarter, more human (and humane) version of Tomorrowland, especially toward the film’s closing moments.

I imagine some filmgoers may be annoyed the film’s lack of explanation as to the origin of Alton’s powers, but that’s not what this film is really about. It is, at heart, a film about the responsibility to protect our own, and a study of how kinship groups—from large circles like "nationality" to medium circles like "religious organizations" to smaller circles like "family"—react to threats from without.

And viewed through that lens, it is a great success.

Published under: Movie Reviews