When Midnight Special starts off, a young boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has been kidnapped by a man identified as his father, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). We’re then introduced to the fact that this kid was raised among a religious cult led by Calvin (Sam Shepard), who is about to send out his undercover goons to track Alton down when he and his followers are busted by the FBI. The Feds also want to find Alton, and thinking that Calvin knows more than he’s letting on, they detain him and his “flock” while Roy, his son, and Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) embark on a road trip across several states.
Who is this kid and why are all these people so interested in him? The runaways are looking for a specific place, but how will they find it? Are there coordinates hidden in Calvin’s sermons? Will Sevier (Adam Driver), a National Security Agency analyst brought in on the case, be able to crack the code and find them? Those are all big questions for Midnight Special, which is a pretty big step up, at least on paper, for writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter and Mud), whose previous credits include the dramatically spare indie Shotgun Stories. This time around, we get a whole lot of mystery and intrigue, but building up to what, exactly?
It should be noted that Alton has the wild ability to shoot massive beams of light from his eyes, so he has to wear goggles and can’t be seen outside. Many viewers will assume Alton is an alien of some kind, or perhaps some sort of mutant or superkid, but if Midnight Special is a sci-fi/fantasy film, it’s in the vein of classic Spielberg fare such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. (Indeed, if you were to combine ET and his best friend Eliot, you might end up with a character very much like Alton). Eventually, the beating heart of the story isn’t the mission but the familial bond between a father and a son and the kid’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst).
But the big question I had after watching the movie was, “So what was the deal with that religious cult?” Calvin was raising Alton as his adopted son, but was he supposed to represent the Second Coming to Calvin and his followers? The movie forces us to infer much about the characters’ experiences prior to leaving the compound, yet neither Roy, Alton, or Sarah seem to have been much affected by their time there at all. In other words, it feels like we’re seeing the second half of a much longer story, and while this enhances the atmosphere of mystery during the first half, it later feels a little like, “Well… that’s it?”
The script doesn’t feel complete, so maybe there’s a longer cut out there in which certain characters have more screen time (Shepard’s Calvin, for example, disappears from the movie after the first 20 minutes). Nevertheless, it’s an accomplished work of science fiction with strong performances all around. It’s not quite up there with Nichols’s best, but it’s still a cut above his Shotgun Stories.