Midnight Special is an odd film. It opens with two men and a boy on the run. The boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), is the biological son of one of the men, Roy (Michael Shannon). Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) have abducted Alton from the Texas ranch on which he was brought up. Cut to the ranch, where we find out Alton’s adoptive father is the pastor of a fervently zealous congregation who believe that Alton has predicted the apocalypse. Alton, you see, has some kind of superpowers – he does this trick where light blasts from his eyes, can control any electrical system with his mind, and can pick up Radio Five Live, among other stations – and has drawn the attention of both the FBI and the NSA, particularly NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). Roy, Lucas, and Roy’s wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) are taking Alton to… well, to say any more would be to spoil the film’s many surprises.
One of the oddest things about Midnight Special, if you’re going into it blind, is trying to work out when it’s set. Director Jeff Nichols has clearly gone for a 1970s Amblin look, with vintage cars and timelessly fusty suits aplenty, a look reinforced by Adam Stone’s unflashy cinematography; the people on the ass-backwards ranch, meanwhile, dress as if they’re from the 1870s. But then, is that NSA techie using a laptop? This sounds like a very specific critique, but it’s typical of the disorientating classic-meets-modern feel of Nichols’ movie, which takes influences from E.T. and Close Encounters, but also from modern superhero fare and from sadder, darker, grittier dramas. Whether this works or not is up for debate; at times, the film feels a little too pleased with its own profundity, and the confusing final act doesn’t answer half of the questions you’ll have been asking about the mysteries of Alton’s powers.
But yet, there’s something magical and moving about the whole thing, largely due to the family story that anchors all the weird gubbins. A constant sense of trepidation surrounds Roy and Sarah, desperate to get Alton to safety and fearful that events will take him from them, just like when he was originally adopted. It’s a film about a father and mother who can’t begin to understand their son but love him unconditionally anyway, and Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst portray these characters with a tragic believability. Just don’t expect all these issues to be sorted out and tied up in a bow – Nichols may cite Spielberg as his main influence, but uplifting this is not.
And whether you’re up for such uncertainty will determine your feelings on Midnight Special, but we’d recommend you dive into it. A modern vintage sci-fi with sadness and superpowers – it’s an odd film, but an oddly wonderful one.
Special Features: Cast and crew interviews
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: JEFF NICHOLS / STARRING: MICHAEL SHANNON, KIRSTEN DUNST, JOEL EDGERTON, ADAM DRIVER, JAEDEN LIEBERHER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW