Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is an occasionally very effective family drama masquerading as a sci-fi genre piece. None of the elements contained here are really fresh, but the writer/director manages to find ways to the audience intrigued with some stellar performances to boot.
The pic tells the story of Alton Meyer (Jacob Lieberher), an eight year old Texas boy seemingly kidnapped by his father Roy (Michael Shannon). Alas, it’s not so simple. The young lad holds supernatural powers that his father knows gives him a far greater cause than he can fathom. If Dad were to tell others that his son’s eyes light up, he means it differently than most. Alton has spent the past couple of years in the care of a religious cult who believe he can predict the end times. The United States government are fearful that he’s a weapon. They’re both chasing him as Roy and his state trooper buddy (Joel Edgerton) try to get Alton where he needs to be. Mom (Kirsten Dunst) eventually enters the frame as well.
Part of the joy of Midnight Special is the genuine unpredictability that pervades the first half especially. The story reveals itself gradually as our protagonists speed along to a destination unknown for the majority of its running time. Shannon has appeared in all four Nichols features. He may not look like your typical leading man these days (he may have been more at home in the 70s), but he has again and again proven his ability to carry a film. Lieberher is understated and effective and all aforementioned supporting players do fine work. This also extends to Adam Driver as a sympathetic NSA operative (not a movie term used often for that profession).
By the director’s own telling, this is partly an homage to the 1970s/80s genre masters before him like Spielberg and John Carpenter (the score could have been composed by him). When we reach the third act, it’s still engaging even if a sense of familiarity and an anti-climactic tone chimes in. For more overt sci-fi throwbacks to the era Nichols is celebrating, we have Super 8 and now Netflix’s “Stranger Things”. The most rewarding moments here lie in the drama of a father’s love for his son and willingness to do anything for him. Anything in the universe.
*** (out of four)