One of the elements that makes Jeff Nichols‘ Take Shelter — still his best film — so fantastic is its masterful control over plot, character, and pacing as it moves towards a conclusion. The specifics elude us until the end, but we know it’s building towards something of value, meaning, and power. His latest feature begins similarly — not plot-wise, but in how we quickly come to feel a pull towards a destination promising wonder, impact, and maybe a few answers.
Unfortunately, Midnight Special never reaches that particular destination.
It does open beautifully though by dropping viewers immediately into a moving story — moving both as in motion and emotion. Two men stand guard over a young boy in a motel room. Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are serious and armed, while the boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), relaxes contently beneath a blanket with a comic book, a flashlight, and goggles. The windows and peephole are covered with tape and cardboard, and a television news report reveals an Amber Alert has been issued for the eight year-old.
A second thread introduces us to Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the leader of a religious sect and Alton’s adoptive father. He sends his men out to retrieve the boy by whatever means necessary as they believe Alton and his gifts are heaven-sent and the key to their impending salvation, but they’re not the only ones looking for him. The F.B.I. suspects some kind of espionage or terrorism is at play after discovering that Alton somehow intercepted and manipulated a top secret satellite.
The government fears him, the cult needs him, and only Roy and Lucas seem intent on trying to help him. It’s a fantastic setup that feeds viewers more than enough to grab our attention while still demanding we play catch-up with the answers. Nichols’ script allows revelations to come naturally rather than through forced exposition, but as our trio hit the road with pursuers on their tail it’s a different kind of wheel-spinning that begins to deflate the experience.
Alton’s abilities and quirks are shown to us along the journey, from the blinding lights emanating from his eyes to his fits of speaking in tongues and numbers, and while Calvin believes the source is God above the others suspect different celestial beings all together. The boy’s actions increase in frequency and power as everyone moves to converge on a preordained location, but what’s waiting for both them and us is little more than a hollow third act. There are no real answers given, what we do get creates far more questions, and worse, it squanders the film’s affirmation on the power of family.
The film’s first half does beautiful work building a family around Alton, both biological and otherwise, and shows great affection and recognition for the care and concern we should all be so lucky to feel in our lives. Kirsten Dunst is Alton’s mother, Adam Driver is an N.S.A. agent whose opinion of the boy shifts dramatically, and the world being created here quickly comes to resemble one heavily influenced by the likes of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Starman — there’s wonder afoot, and we’re witnessing something special, until we’re not. The theme of family and of parenting in particular is muffled beneath empty revelations, unanswered questions, and a counter-intuitive message.
It’s a beautiful ride until then though. Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone make great use of light, both natural and unnatural, and deliver sharp clarity in their nighttime action scenes. Composer David Wingo, a go-to music man for both Nichols and David Gordon Green, gives the film an ethereal feel throughout while still managing to add propulsion to the action. Performances are good across the board, but it’s Shannon and Lieberher who stand out. The former is perfectly understated in both his strength and pain while the latter finds a fine balance in his character’s duality.
Midnight Special introduces us to a boy we’re told is meant for something great, but instead it’s greatness that the film leaves behind. As science fiction films go this is still an improvement on much of the cold, CG-filled efforts churned out by Hollywood, but the film’s promise ultimately outweighs what it manages to deliver.
The Upside: Fantastic first act; some affecting performances; David Wingo’s score
The Downside: Weak third act; empty reveal; conflicted message