Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on the run with Roy’s biological son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). They’ve just snatched the kid from a millenarian cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) and need to get across country to an as-yet-undefined location. The cult has a pair of ruthless killers, Doak (Bill Camp) and Levi (Scott Haze), on their tail … but the Feds bust ‘the Ranch’ and take an interest in the kid, who has a variety of psychic powers including a knack of tapping into NSA satellites and learning classified information. NSA analyst Sevier (Adam Driver) and FBI agent Miller (Paul Sparks) head the government task force, though they are as much in the dark about Alton’s abilities as anyone else. Roy takes Alton to Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), the boy’s birth mother, and Lucas – until a few days ago, a State Trooper but now convinced of Alton’s messianic status – becomes conflicted as he sees how dangerous the kid can be, causing a satellite to crash in a rain of fragments onto a gas station, and how ruthless Roy is in protecting him.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols previously made Take Shelter and Mud, and this is as much a development of those films’ jittery, indie, zeitgeist-surfing paranoid gloom as it is a straight-up paranormal thriller. Specific elements recall moments from Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind and Firestarter, while the mood is closer to the chill David Cronenberg/Stephen King of The Dead Zone or the murk of some X-Files episodes (and the whole thing could be a gloss on that very odd item The Visitor) even as Nichols cites the blander Starman as inspiration. It is a sign of the times that material mainstream enough to feature in Steven Spielberg films and Stephen King novels in the 1970s and early ’80s is now considered too intellectual for a blockbuster, but this also refuses to take an easy way out with confrontations, action scenes, explanations and clearcut morality. Nichols starts in mid-story and keeps us off-balance for a while, and a key character-influencing moment – Alton convincing Lucas of his powers so he walks away from a straight life to join Roy’s crusade/road trip – is talked about, but not shown.
Indeed, the film is full of hints and half-told plot threads which are evocative but maybe distracting: the cult and the federal pursuit are established early on with potent little details (like the odd hairstyles of the female cultists and a speaking-in-tongues sermon which involves reciting numbers that sound like Sudoku solutions) but fade into the background as the movie gets more interested in the small knot of people around Alton. For much of the film, Alton is literally kept in the dark as if he were a vampire but when injured he needs sunlight to recharge as if he were the solar-powered ‘80s reboot of Superman glimpsed in the comics the kid is given. He has eyebeams which can be as destructive as Cyclops’ in X-Men but can also force-feed visions and maybe addictive psychic experiences into desperate followers.
Only Edgerton’s conflicted nice guy really gets an arc — the actor again impresses by expressing terror and wonder at the same time; Shannon and Dunst, both powerhouse performers, register in underwritten roles simply by the force of their presence, while Driver steals scenes as an emo take on the Francois Truffaut character from CE3K. Of course, the finale offers mystification and transcendence in a field – with astonishing visions which one-up surprisingly similar moments in a recent, much more expensive science fiction movie. Midnight Special has mood, texture, freeform paranoia and a sense of infinite possibility going for it, and the sf/horror road movie stuff – betrayals, motel freak-outs, sudden bursts of psychic power, cardboard taped over the windows – is resonant and effective. However, there’s also a sense – common in recent film and TV – that much of the mystery is due to the film not having the s-f chops to stay consistent. Nicholls, like a lot of current creators, specialises in making up cool stuff on the run rather than exploring an actual vision.