“Midnight Special” — A Sci-Fi Puzzler That I Wish Was Just a Little Bit Better


APRIL 14, 2016


As a movie, Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” is an odd duck.  A really odd duck, if I’m totally honest, but one that’s definitely worth your time.

Even if you’re a frequent moviegoer, you probably don’t recognize the name of Jeff Nichols.  Don’t worry, you soon will, as he has the ability to combine a Spielberg-like world-view with a distinctly Southern flair that holds promise for a major career to come as a writer/director.

Prior to “Midnight Special,” Nichols had made three films — the first (“Shotgun Stories”) is still in my Netflix queue, but his second (“Take Shelter”) and third (“Mud”) are two of the best independent films of the past decade.  “Midnight Special” is not quite up to the quality of those two, but, in taking on bigger themes, it’s so exciting to see him swing for the fences with this film.

It’s really difficult to talk about “Midnight Special” without disclosing spoilers, but I’ll try my best, because the film’s title tells you nothing about what the film delivers.

There’s not a lot of backstory shown in a Jeff Nichols film.  He throws you into the deep end of the pool, and it’s up to you to figure out what’s going on.  We open on two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and his state trooper accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) driving in a car with 8 year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) wearing blue goggles in the back seat, followed by reports of an amber alert that notifies the authorities that a young boy has been abducted.  Uh-oh.  This is creepy, but we think we know what’s going on, right?  Wrong.

Cut to a cult-driven church, where its charismatic leader Calvin (Sam Shepard, wisely underplaying the role) is confronted by FBI agents, who demand that he reveal what he knows about Alton, who apparently is much much more than a member of the congregation.

Subsequent news reports reveal that Roy is Alton’s biological father, and it appears that his abduction is more of a rescue mission from the church than a kidnapping.  Roy and Lucas take Alton to reunite with his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, particularly good), but en route, Alton triggers a supernatural event that reveals that he has powers far more than your average 8 year-old.  So, for different reasons, both the church and the FBI investigators, led by a particularly empathetic agent, Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), are after Alton because of his heightened powers.

Given Nichols’ skills, I just wish that his first big-studio (Warner Bros.) movie was a little bit better than it is.  Most of the action seems to stay inside the car (which is limiting), and the Spielberg-ian “wow” moments don’t really register as strongly as they should, perhaps because of a limited budget.

Shannon (who appears to be Nichols’ muse, having appeared in all 4 of his films), plays a surprisingly sympathetic role for a change, Edgerton is fine (though his character’s motivation seems a bit murky) and young Lieberher is OK, though his personality doesn’t register as strongly as it might.

I’m happy to see Nichols graduate to the big leagues, but I hope that the unevenness of “Midnight Special” doesn’t impede his progress to bigger, better projects.