The Less You Know About Midnight Special, The Better

By  · Published on March 12th, 2016

This article is part of our coverage of SXSW 2016.

Midnight Special, the latest film from Mud and Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols, is the rare kind of film that’s almost too difficult to review. It’s not that it’s particularly complex or hard to describe. It’s more that it’s the kind of movie that anyone who loves cinema would want others to discover for themselves. The less you know about it going in, the better off you’ll be. And not in an M. Night Shyamalan, toss in a late plot twist kind of way. This movie has plenty of secrets, but it doesn’t lean on them like the average thriller. So forgive me in advance if I’m not dishing enough plot details. You don’t need them. Not yet.

At the center of Midnight Special is a boy named Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher). From the start, we’re told that there’s something very special about this boy. With the help of his father (Michael Shannon) and his father’s friend (Joel Edgerton), Alton is fleeing a cult-like commune called The Ranch, led by a mysterious preacher (Sam Shepard). What exactly is special about Alton is something the film slowly unravels. And for much of the movie, what’s special about him is secondary to how it affects those around him.

Nichols’ story is a masterful example of show vs. tell storytelling. As we watch Alton and his protectors flee, not a single frame of the film is wasted on listless exposition. The film isn’t in a hurry to give the audience any information it doesn’t need. The result is a movie story that is thoroughly captivating. It’s the coherence of a quality script, a director with an eye for intimacy and a cast that is perfectly assembled. As we know from Take Shelter, Michael Shannon is exactly the right kind of understated, yet emotionally resonant performer for Nichols’ storytelling style. It plays perfectly here.

Thematically, the film is a thoughtful exploration about the human reaction to the things we don’t understand. There is the protective nature of family, embodied in Shannon, Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother. The idea of faith is embodied by this commune led by Sam Shepard, showing us the ways in which humanity ascribes great importance to the things that are outside our spectrum of understanding – often turning the unexplainable into a religion. And there’s fear, embodied by a government chasing down a series of unexplained phenomenon, led by a curious, out of his depth NSA analyst (played by Adam Driver).

Much of the film is a chase propelled by an exceptional score from David Wingo, a longtime collaborator with Nichols and David Gordon Green. Well before Midnight Special spreads its wings as a bold sci-fi/fantasy vision, the music presents a sense of urgency and wonder. It’s not often that a movie can spend so much time inside a car or a hotel room and still feel like we’re watching a story with massive consequences.

It’s this mix of intimate, thoughtful storytelling and big ideas that make Midnight Special – for lack of a better word – a special movie. Seeing it at SXSW recalls the experience of seeing Ex Machina here last year. Nichols has delivered the kind of movie that begs to be seen again, explored deeper and talked about with friends. Its details are something that will generate conversation, its craftsmanship something that should be celebrated. After everyone sees it, that is. Because the best way to experience Midnight Special is with no more information than I’ve provided.

Just see it and you’ll believe.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)