“Midnight Special” opens in a dingy motel room. The windows are deliberately blacked out. A shotgun lies on the bed. A news report on the TV says a child, eight year old Alton Miller, has just been abducted by a man named Roy Tomlin. The man in the hotel watching this news report is Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). Then, we see Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) sitting on the floor. Roy approaches him. They talk, and their voices, gentle, instantly betray that this is not captor and victim; indeed, they are father and son. Roy picks the entirely willing Alton up and carries him to the car of his gruff accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton). They roar off into the night.
During all this, you keep expecting a cut to black and a title card to flash up that says “Five Days Earlier.” It never happens; this is the beginning of the story, even though it feels like the end of the story, like writer/director Jeff Nichols has crafted a two hour film that plays as if it’s entirely a third act, so palpable is the suspense and so limited is the exposition. That refusal to explicate every last detail was a hallmark of Nichols’ previous three films too, but he goes further in “Midnight Special”, tantalizing by suppressing, willing to let mystery linger in the air. And even if Nichols can’t completely cash in on that mystery in the end, the film still works.
Alton turns out to be a MacGuffin by way of a Messiah; he’s the thing everybody wants, but a thing also endowed with majestic power. White beams of light emanate from his eyes, he pulls satellites out of orbit with his mind, and he often seems to know what will happen before it does. This has led The Ranch, some Branch Davidian-ish outfit in rural Texas, lorded over by stern Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who issues a jowly underling (Bill Camp) an order to find Alton and bring him back, to reason Alton is their Savior from some impending apocalypse. This has led the FBI to reason Alton poses a threat to national security, though Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), less ominous than most cinematic government bureaucrats, thinks Alton might be the key to unlocking some other mystery entirely. Both groups want to find Alton in advance of March 6th, a special date of some kind, though its significance remains nebulous, and Roy and Lucas will go to any lengths to prevent this little boy from being re-taken, marking “Midnight Special” as something akin to a supernatural chase movie.
Yet for all the paranormal activities, “Midnight Special” remains very of the earth, with Nichols taking noticeable care to portray the relationship between Alton and his protectors with authenticity. Look at Alton in the backseat of the fleeing vehicle, flipping through comics and wearing swim goggles. Those heavy specs are meant as protection, given that light in his eyes, but they look just as much like adolescent affectation, and in this context, looking like any normal kid, we can see how he comes across that way to Roy, and eventually to Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), his mom, who joins this fugitive crew mid-movie as the reasons for fleeing only deepen.
Nichols expects his actors to do considerable lifting here, given the absence of so much backstory, and while Edgerton is extraordinarily commendable, in just a few swift flourishes evincing a man of extreme loyalty who has, in Alton, seen the light, it is Shannon and Dunst who have the most actorly weight to pull, and they do, forging a tenuous bond for the sake of the child. That bond is rooted in both happiness for being with Alton and sadness as they come to grips with the fact that Alton’s uniqueness means they may eventually have to let him go. And while Nichols’ film bears hallmarks of Steven Spielberg, from “E.T.” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, even “The Sugarland Express”, its most Spielberg-ian trait is its faith in family, one that sees the movie through more than any hocus pocus or special effect, not that Nichols is able to resist the siren's song of special effects.
A film in which the supernatural plays such a big part is essentially begging for a spectacular payoff, and Nichols is all too glad oblige. His style doesn’t mesh well with such fireworks, however, and the film is partially undone by his determination to reveal the mystery as something grand when the answer to that mystery ultimately is much less important than the family bond that must necessarily be broken. Still, even if the expectant visual fireworks don’t go off, there is another one that does.
Nichols has been razzed in the past for underwriting female characters, and you do come away from “Midnight Special” wishing that Sarah had more to do. Roy is allowed the urgency of the quest throughout while Dunst’s Sarah is mostly just slotted to stand around and quietly suffer. And the revelation that these two were once members of The Ranch and she, not him, left when their cultish taskmasters forcefully made Alton their own is the one moment when the movie actually cries out for more clarification as to why she would have walked away then without fighting like she is now. Still, even absent those details, Dunst’s sad eyes and wilted posture make clear a mother’s guilt, and the film’s real climax is just Dunst’s expression, which you’ll know when you see, grief for what she’s lost, joy for what her son has gained. In that moment I thought that if Mary of Nazareth were around she’d nod and say, “Huh, finally someone got that feeling right.”