Why a Father’s Love Isn’t Enough to Save ‘Midnight Special’

There’s nothing more American than a chase scene. That’s one of the reasons that, looking back on Jeff Nichols’s somber science-fiction thriller Midnight Special, it’s the moments of movement and noise that come to mind. The dark Texas and Louisiana highways, an old Detroit beater with its deeply thrumming engine, the hushed sentinel lines of trees on either side, the man at the wheel driving with the lights off and night-vision goggles on, the special cargo in the back seat wearing protective goggles and reading comic books by flashlight. All the great and terrifying forces of post-millennial America are gathering in the night and searching for them: an alphabet soup of government agencies, breaking-news television with its Amber alerts, and an end-times sect convinced that they have found their messiah.

The prize everyone is chasing after or trying to protect is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), an eight-year-old with an otherworldly air, occasionally glowing eyes, and the alien powers of a special child from a 1970s Stephen King novel. He’s been raised on the Ranch, a Central Texas ramble of white dormitory buildings and sect members with the conservative dress and frayed look of people just waiting for the end of the world. Alton’s fits and seizures, in which he babbles foreign languages and number strings, are interpreted by the Ranch’s leader Calvin (Sam Shepard) as divine messages about the apocalypse and how his followers can be ready to be taken to heaven.

By the time we’re dropped into the story, Alton’s birth father Roy (Nichols’s longtime star Michael Shannon) has taken him from the Ranch and enlisted the help of childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to get Alton to a secret location. While Calvin sends his acolytes out to bring back their golden child, the FBI, military, and an oddly loquacious NSA analyst (Adam Driver) are coming after them due to the odd coincidence that much of the data that Alton spits out is exactly replicated from top-secret decoded satellite communications.

Although the conspiratorial bent of the story would seem to lead toward an X-Files style of sci-fi specificity, Nichols plays it looser, painting Alton’s abilities in broad mystical strokes. The dream-like atmosphere, all these sunsets and dawns, lonesome highway scenes scored to David Wingo’s plaintively haunting piano score, and the nearly wordless awestruck reactions by those who have looked into Alton’s shining eyes and seen … something push the film closer to broad and misty-eyed type of fantasy.

Midnight Special brings together a primal mix of influences, from the twinned paranoia and optimism of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (aliens = good / government = bad) to the blend of gruff poetic naturalism and pulp-fiction plotting that Nichols delivered in Take Shelter and Mud. But those other films were all built on a strong netting of vividly drawn characters tossed into extraordinary circumstances. While Nichols’s characters have often been taciturn, they also indulged in great flights of rhetorical fancy; just look at Shannon’s apocalyptic musings in Take Shelter or Matthew McConaughey’s Peter Pan-like speeches in Mud. In Midnight Special, the dialogue is so muted and dialed-back that it leaves little room for those delivering it to establish themselves as individuals.

In part that seems to have been done to further draw out the central relationship between Alton and Roy, who had his son taken from him for two years by Calvin. There is an undeniable power to their moments together; the primal way in which Roy grabs Alton close and tears himself up over the fact that to best protect his child he may have to give him up. When Roy says, “I like worrying about you” to Alton, it seems one of the most pure and boiled-down distillations of parenthood ever seen on film.

But although Nichols has written a story of paternal love wrapped in wondrous sci-fi rhetoric, what endures on the screen is the chase. Like most chase stories, it lives and dies by the destination. When that destination turns out to be essentially an inexplicable dream, everything that came before it is inevitably seen in a different, and not exactly favorable, light.

Title: Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year of release: 2016
Rating: PG-13
Web site: http://www.midnightspecialmovie.com/