A father protects his supernaturally-gifted son from a cult and the feds.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, and Kirsten Dunst
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
The benevolent alien aspect is where Nichols puts on his specifically American pants. Alton eventually gets undifferentiated, unlimited powers that fit whatever he needs to be able to do in the moment, and I'm sure I've written some review or other talking about how I don't like that. Again, that wouldn't stick out as much if the feds never captured him and he didn't have to escape, so cut that whole segment and I'm more optimistic. Where Midnight Special separates itself from the K-Pax's of the world is in the cult, something I'm always going to gravitate towards onscreen, if not in real life. It's possible that there are Danish equivalents and they just don't make US news, but these doomsday, millenarian, prepper cults feel unique to this country. Nichols admirably doesn't make these characters look silly. Instead, he builds the experience of interacting with Alton as a religious one for them, a version of confirmation bias for a cult that's surely predated his existence. So many of their real-life counterparts go through their lives waiting for a miracle, and Alton is very much one of those.
The reverence Alton is shown is baked into the plot and the dialogue. Even without the explicit references to him writing their bible and showing the parishioners visions, it would still be apparent just in the way he's spoken about. When they stop by Elden's for a brief respite, the way Elden tells the party that 'he's prepared a room for [Alton]' is practically messianic in its delivery, like he's dictating future books of the bible that will document this exact moment. For me, the doomsday thread is highly reminiscent of Take Shelter. In that film, Nichols communicated dread so viscerally, that it's old hat for him five years later, and it's pretty disappointing when the cult so abruptly leaves the film with another 40 minutes to go.
Midnight Special is a quietly large film of alternate dimensions and beings of pure light, but it most excels in its depiction of a family. The relationships between Alton and Roy, and later Sarah and Alton, are superlative child-parent portrayals, both in the broadly applicable and in the specificity to the film's circumstances. Michael Shannon has to convey Roy's love of his son, and at the same time, his willingness to put him at risk to get to their destination, and he succeeds. It's an oddly-loving version of zealotry, where safety is the secondary concern. Roy could come easily off as a bully, but the picture of him as a father is too warm to allow for any doubt. He's patiently indulgent of his son's eccentricities (the Spanish radio station), gets frustrated and immediately regrets it (gas station), and has an easy way of communicating his love for him (I like worrying about you). Just the manner in which either character is given to saying 'Dad' or 'Alton' in times of stress, like one of Alton's attacks or as they are leaving each other for the last time, speaks volumes to their relationship. Sarah shares that easy affection for her kid, as well as the fiery defense of him when she rips that shower bar out of the wall, and the combination feels deeply true.
Nichols is one of my favorite directors, and a large part of that is because Shannon has played a role in all of his films. There are few actors better at playing a tightly-coiled ball of nerves than Shannon, and it makes him inherently watchable and magnetic. There is the required blow-up in the abduction scene and its aftermath, with Shannon painfully swallowing his misery while driving through the checkpoint before releasing it a short time later. He is able to juxtapose that with a bottomless well of warmth, and it's a combination that makes his Roy some of Shannon's best work.
Nichols starts with his reliable stalwart at the top, and he moves down the call sheet with nothing but good performances. Dunst is a strong counterpart to Shannon, softer but just as resolute. Alton, played by Jaeden Lieberher, has a great deal of poise for a kid of his age. Those distinctive blue goggles only make him look more fragile, and that look of pure sadness on his face the morning after the Elden episode is searing. Joel Edgerton as Lucas surprised me with all the various notes he has to play, specifically the ecstasy of discovery which is another gimme for this viewer. Adam Driver is a believable nerd, contrasting Lucas' joy with a milder intrigue. From The Night Of, Bill Camp has a memorable role as the doomed and conflicted cult hunter, and I loved David Jensen's creepy devotion as Elden.
Midnight Special has a few rough edges on some of its storytelling, but as a vehicle for familial goodness, it's airtight. Nichols is able to pack the whole arc of a father and son in a few days, as Roy takes care of Alton until he achieves a level of independence and he ultimately has to let him go off on his own. This kind of relationship is a new facet to Nichols' career, as he hadn't so directly focused on it up til now, and in a completely unsurprising result, he nails it. I do somewhat hope that he's got the supernatural stuff out of his system, though, before he embarks on whatever he does next. If he can make an alien-esque story as affecting as this one, he'll only pack more emotional detail into something more grounded. B+