Midnight Special, the latest effort from writer and director Jeff Nichols, defies any attempt at conventional genre classification. Made up of equal parts science-fiction, chase movie and domestic drama, the film opens in a dingy motel room in regional Texas, where two anxious looking men are guarding an eight-year old boy. The boy, wearing industrial strength ear muffs and blue goggles, reads a Superman comic by torchlight until the men bundle him into a waiting car and the three speed off into the night. We soon learn that the boy is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), the strange, possibly supernaturally gifted adopted son of a Texan cult leader. The two men are Alton’s biological father Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). They are racing towards a specific location in Florida, where Alton must be in four days time for unknown but apparently urgent reasons.
Brother Calvin (Sam Shepard) despatches two followers to retrieve his adopted son, and state and federal law enforcement join the pursuit. In some of the films strongest scenes, soft-spoken NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) interviews cult members about Alton’s powers. The boy has fits, Paul is told, during which light bulbs spontaneously burst and cars break down. He also speaks in tongues, which Calvin believes represent the word of God, but Paul knows are in part highly classified and heavily encrypted government intelligence reports transmitted by military satellite. Driver’s NSA agent appears particularly enthralled when cult members attempt to explain the strange and powerful sensations they experienced while looking into Alton’s unprotected eyes.
We get increasingly spectacular displays of Alton’s abilities during the race to Florida, but much as he did in Take Shelter, Nichols uses supernatural imagery and staggering special effects in a way that feels grounded and relatively small-scale. The introduction of Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) to the narrative in the second act does a lot to preserve that sense of reality. For a few short moments we see Sarah, Roy and Alton in a calm, domestic setting, Alton sits cross-legged on the rug playing with his toys while his parents watch on, smiling. You realize that for all his incredible gifts and mysterious origins, Alton is like the deaf daughter of Shannon’s character in Take Shelter, a special, vulnerable child who needs extraordinary amounts of love and protection from his parents.
Midnight Special takes a turn into the truly fantastical in its third act, and while the climax may not work for everybody, it’s hard not to respect Nichols’ ambition and commitment to his vision. The entire cast deserves praise for their performances. Shannon, in his fourth collaboration with Nichols, is quietly devastating as a desperate father, and Dunst gives a beautifully internalized performance as a woman who finds a way to understand the incomprehensible for the sake of her child. Credit should also go to the film’s cinematographer Adam Stone and David Wingo for his haunting, propulsive score.