Midnight Special is like diving into a Spielberg film 40 minutes in. Where Spielberg would start at the beginning, laying out the various relationships, showing someone’s discovery of what it is that makes the central boy character special, etc., writer/director Jeff Nichols cuts to the chase (literally, in this case). We open with Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) already on the run with a young boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). They clearly believe there is something special about Alton, as does a religious cult, and the feds who are hot on Roy and Lucas’ trail. As one character explains the stakes, the outcome of whatever is going on with this boy may “decide our whole way in life,” and that decision appears to be coming in a matter of days. Everyone already knows what is going on, except the viewer.
I am being obnoxiously vague here because Midnight Special is one of those movies that is best enjoyed if you know as little as possible going in. In fact, here is all you really need to know about Midnight Special. In addition to Shannon and Edgerton, Sam Shepard plays the leader of the cult, Adam Driver plays the main federal agent, and Kirsten Dunst plays someone who has ties to several of these characters. As the film progresses, and as Nichols has done with his prior films, the circumstances and relationships are explained as things move along. While this can be a tough trick to pull off without resorting to exposition dumps, Nichols’ short career has shown him to be a master of this structure. As the viewer comes to wonder, for example, why every place Roy and Lucas hole up in have all the windows boarded up, Nichols eventually reveals this by showing, rather than telling. Throughout the film, everything the viewer needs to know is quietly but precisely doled out in similar fashion. Even though some of these beats may be apparent before the film fully reveals them — and few of them are monumental pieces of information that would be ruinous spoilers if you were told them now — it really is better to experience it all for yourself.
So here is what I am willing to tell you. Midnight Special is a science fiction movie, but it is not so-called “hard” science fiction. It is exactly like early Spielberg science fiction (think E.T. and Close Encounters). It is also a thriller, although there is only the quietest tension as things progress. In fact, the film does not feel as long as its almost two hour run time, not because it races, but because it just pulls you into its world so completely. It does this both through Nichols’ skill as a story teller, and through a number of excellent performances. Early on, the cast is not asked to do any heavy lifting and everyone delivers these quiet, natural performances. But as the stakes are raised, those stakes bare their weight on each of the actors, and the performances shine as a result.
Midnight Special is not without its flaws. Unlike a Spielberg film, there is a missing warmth. Most of the characters feel, despite the strong performances behind them, like little more than tools being used to service the overall story. In fact, Adam Driver shines through, both because he is the viewer’s surrogate, thrown into the circumstances of the film, and because the sparse moments of humor in the movie come from or around him. Also, the third act of the film will be a make-or-break for many, and while it has largely been well-received at its film festival screenings, that reception may be more tepid when the film is seen by wider audiences.
That last point may explain why this movie is coming out with very little fanfare. Jeff Nichols is one of the best kept secrets out there right now. His first three films — Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud — are treasured indie darlings that most folks have never heard of. With his first major studio film, one would expect that to change. However, Warner Brothers has not given Midnight Special much of a promotional push, and is rolling it out very slowly. This may be because the studio is hoping that this is a film that will be best served through an Ex Machina-like word-of-mouth. But it may also be because Warner Brothers is scared of its ultimate reception. Midnight Special is a cold movie, and not the typical big studio science fiction kind, and that can be a tough sell. But it is also a good movie (though a step backwards from the great Nichols movies that came before it), and one that will reward those who give it their time.
Midnight Special had its North American premiere at South by Southwest 2016.