One of the most remarkable aspects of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is just how far it gets without needing to explain itself. In fact, by the time the end credits roll there hasn’t been extended meaningful exposition. Instead we’ve seen a sci-fi tinged on-the-run thriller about a boy and his father fleeing shadowy government forces and heavies from their church’s compound, a chase across the South that charges forward with simmering tension and intimate, methodical strategy. It’s a thriller with respect for the majesty of the unexplainable. With casual magic and mystery, it weaves into suspense tiny grace notes, finding large wonderment in small details, implying more than it says outright. The film saves big reveals for so long, and answers them in sideways intuitive ways. We’re left with more questions than answers in a most satisfying result. It’s tantalizing and evocative, grand filmmaking on a small scale, huge implications left dangling with an ethereal, almost spiritual mystique.
As the story begins we hear the muffled sounds of an Amber Alert on an old TV in a shabby motel room. A boy (Jaeden Lieberher) has been kidnapped. He’s in this room with his captors, a situation diffused of immediate danger to him as it’s slowly revealed he has been taken from a fundamentalist cult and its pastor (Sam Shepard) by his biological father (Michael Shannon) and a friend (Joel Edgerton) determined to take him to freedom. They travel under the cover of darkness, move quickly, and meet up with collaborators (including Kirsten Dunst) for daylight respites. They’re under a tight deadline involving coordinates and secret messages. They’re moving him to a better life, following mystery directives we slowly come to understand. Nichols maintains impeccable tension in this cloud of ambiguity by keeping close attention on the specificities, the small details in the process of fleeing across state lines.
The film works through a confident and relaxed focus on the hows, not the whys, allowing its later leaps to feel more intuitive and excusable. Steady shots take in precise steps taken to avoid detection, lingering on the clack of a gun being loaded, the stretch of swimming goggles perpetually protecting the boy’s eyes, the engine noises in various makes and models of vehicles, the snap of headlights disappearing on a dark Texan road in the middle of the night. The danger sits in the risks the boy’s father is willing to take to keep him from agents (like Adam Driver) and other governmental forces who seek to claim the boy for further study (echoes of Spielberg’s Close Encounters and E.T. and Carpenter’s Starman), and the church’s flunkies (Bill Camp and Scott Haze) who are out to capture him for the purposes of exploiting his gifts. Science and religion both attach grand meanings to massive unknowns. Fear and tension is in the doubt about what’ll happen if his father fails. The stakes are clear.
Nichols, whose work including the powerful mental illness nightmare Take Shelter, laconic family tragedy Shotgun Stories, and boyhood crime-fable Mud shows a gift for patient, empathetic, and self-assuredly paced stories, approaches Midnight Special with his typical good judgment. It’s not a loud or flashy sci-fi adventure; we don’t get genre efforts this confidently circumspect, beautifully restrained everyday, certainly not bankrolled by a major studio. He trusts silence, stillness, while still ramping up the thrills when called for. He reveals what we need to know through action, tells us about character through behaviors. This is a beautifully photographed (by Nichols’ usual cinematographer Adam Stone) and contained movie – set in stolen cars, cheap motels, tiny command centers – gathering suspense and sweep off the back of small emotional exchanges and intimate interpersonal investments.
It helps that the cast does fine work across the board, performers who can sketch in pain and determination with a glance, or a few well-chosen lines. It approaches Cormac McCarthy territory in some of its terse dialogue in dusty landscapes, sharp and expressive for their brevity, people who can’t risk feeling too much lest the crushing weight of their actions’ enormity – embodied in the wide open spaces around them – stops them cold. Shannon looks at his boy with such tenderness and caring, while charging forward with single-minded drive to protect him at all costs. Edgerton’s blind loyalty is quiet competence. Dunst’s maternal energy manifests itself as submerged worry pushed into protective energy, while young Lieberher has a serene otherworldliness that makes incredibly clear the uneasy extrasensory gifts will lead this road-trip to an ending no one understands. They just know it must be done.
What, exactly, are the powers of this boy at the center of so much drama? They remain beautifully vague. He can hear radio and satellite signals, is affected by sunlight – hence another good reason for night travel beyond hiding from authorities – and occasionally his eyes glow with eerie blue light. We’re told that to look into this illuminated stare is to see glimpses of a better world. Could there be a more lovely, forceful, intuitive metaphor for the lengths a parent will go to protect a child? They see overwhelming hope in his eyes. It’s a movie about parents protecting a child from the world and helping manifest his gifts, even if they don’t understand them. It’s about support for the boy’s future, wherever it may take him. It’s about the pain and profound contentment of caring for a child – a key moment finds Shannon telling his boy, “I like worrying about you” – and the difficulty of letting that child make his own path. The film’s powerful conclusion brings this metaphor to stirring heights, conjuring Amblin awe and blending it with an unearthly melancholy.
The result is a movie that plays out as a plaintive old-fashioned country flavor in a hair-raising low-key sci-fi mode, an usual combination that’s nonetheless comforting in its throwback appeals. It is involving and compelling for what is not said and what is left to the imagination, giving the Big Moments that much more room to excite and entrance. Nichols’ interest in human-scale stories brings great sensitivity to Midnight Special’s thrills and astonishments. The film crackles with intrigue and personality without overly insisting on it. Here he injects genre elements into a patient thriller, widening the scope of its implications only in its final moments, executed with aplomb. He trusts an audience to groove on a delicate metaphor and move with trembling echoes of extrasensory wavelengths without needing it all spelled out. Another fine entry in our recent cycle of vintage sci-fi throwbacks, it, like Super 8 and Tomorrowland, looks backwards and forwards, a timeless reinvention of a sturdy genre storytelling mode.