The fourth film of 37-year-old Arkansan director Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special feels like a narrative made to fit its title. Named for an old folk standard, it follows Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a goggle-wearing pre-teen gifted with supernatural abilities. As the three, including driver Lucas (Joel Edgerton), speed through Texas, heading for an unknown destination, both the Federal government — embodied by Adam Driver’s geeky NSA specialist, Paul Sevier — and a Midwestern cult — led by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Sam Shephard — are in pursuit.
The question of whether Alton is saviour or threat is ultimately irrelevant, though: new father Nichols’ interest lies, understandably, in father-son relationship, as seen through a distinctly Spielbergian lens. As Edgerton’s worn but well-meaning accomplice remarks they — along with Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) — “would have made a nice family”. David Wingo’s low, driving electronic score and Adam Stone’s sharp night-time cinematography evoke a variety of ‘80s sci-fi classics — as does a scene where Sarah’s mother is menacingly doorstepped by two cult members looking for “Sarah” — but Nichols’ exposition-free script focuses on character.
The exact nature of Alton’s abilities — his eyes glow with white light, he picks up encrypted government signals and brings down a satellite in a rain of fiery debris — and disabilities is left unclear — each episode leaves him physically weaker and, for reasons never explained, can only travel at night (hence, one presumes) the title. As with Nichols’ previous works, Midnight Special is all about how far we are willing to go to protect our family — albeit with a slightly different milieu from the working-class desperation that characterised his debut feature, Shotgun Stories.
Shannon’s more reserved role doesn’t necessarily play to the actor’s full range — this is arguably the least remarkable of his and Nichols’ four collaborations; the most being his turn as the doomsaying family man of Give Me Shelter — but the buttoned-down intensity he brings to the role is faintly compelling. Lieberher’s Alton is, refreshingly, just an ordinary, slightly solemn kid (as opposed to, say, the kid from Mercury Rising) — albeit one given to mysterious proclamations — and Dunst breathes life and nuance into an otherwise slightly thankless role.
Despite some inconsistent mythology and a finale that takes the notion of “a better world for our children” way too literally (think Tomorrowland meets A.I.), Midnight Special is, for the most part, a well-observed, no-frills genre/chase flick. Along with 10 Cloverfield Lane, the film makes the case that the mid-budget genre flick is alive and well and, it seems, living south of the Mason-Dixon.