Serious to a Fault, ‘Midnight Special’ Could Have Been Special

Remniscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jeff Nichols’ new film, featuring a supernatural boy, misses the fun that made its precursors shine.

Midnight Special. Courtesy of Warner Bros. (DETAIL)

We need to talk about Alton. Nice boy, bright, well-behaved. But it seems strange that his eyes sometimes shine like the demon kids’ peepers in Village of the Damned, and that he occasionally speaks in unison with the deejay on the Spanish-language radio station—even when the radio isn’t turned on. Little things like that.

Alton’s peculiarity is at the heart of Midnight Special, the fourth feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). As the film begins, we are mysteriously in the middle of the action: Eight-year-old Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher, the boy from The Confirmation) is being transported across Texas by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s state-trooper buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The authorities are after them, but we don’t know why. Meanwhile, a religious patriarch (Sam Shepard), who seems to be the leader of some sort of apocalyptic cult, orders his deputy (Bill Camp) to find the kid at all costs.

This is an intriguing opening—we can’t tell who the good guys or bad guys are—and Nichols teases out the sense of mystery as long as he can. What we do learn quickly is that in two days’ time, something big is due to happen, and if Alton does not arrive at a certain geographic location, some sort of cosmic opportunity will be missed.

No, the location isn’t Devils Tower. But Midnight Special is unabashedly imitative of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—in which a mystified Richard Dreyfuss found himself drawn to the Wyoming landmark—and other sense-of-wonder sci-fi films of the CE3K era. Alton and his protectors are bound for a particular spot, on a particular day, where Alton’s destiny might be supernatural … or will this all turn out to be a government plot, or possibly a psychotic episode? Federal agents are also on the trail, and while most of them look as though they stepped straight out of a Cold War-era CIA recruitment film, there’s one exception: an NSA agent named Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, who’s getting the kinds of roles Jeff Goldblum used to get in the ’80s—the gawky intellectual nerd with a beatnik streak). Sevier is clearly empathetic, so we suspect he’ll play a role in drawing this chase to a satisfactory conclusion.

Nichols likes to play it coy when he doles out his information, and he loves his omens—when it comes to earthquakes and fiery things dropping from the heavens, he’s your guy. Setups are the easy part of narrative, though, and Nichols isn’t as strong with resolutions. There’s a scene in Midnight Special in which Sevier, wired data analyst that he is, begins to see a pattern emerge in the cult’s bizarre numbers-only sermons. Could there be a connection between these seemingly random numbers and the coordinates of Alton’s destination? Perhaps, but Nichols doesn’t explain what that is; all we know is that Sevier sees something. Nichols misses Spielberg’s glorious cinematic shudder in Close Encounters when Dreyfuss spots a TV news report about Devils Tower as his own sculpture of the mountain looms in the background of the shot. That’s the fun stuff in a movie like this, but Nichols is too serious for that sort of thing. All his films have been portentous and grim, leaning heavily on Southern accents and deep-fried atmosphere. Even his use of the unsettling Michael Shannon—this is their fourth time together—is becoming tedious. Shannon smiles a couple of times during the film, and the effect is more than a little scary.

The only prominent female role in the picture, Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother, is drably painted; affection and anxiety between men is Nichols’ forte. The whole chase leads to a nicely played scene between father and son, and you might wonder whether that was the point of the movie all along. It’s good that Roy is a protective father toward Alton, but it might have been interesting to have seen more about what a father goes through when his son is spectacularly and maybe supernaturally unlike other children. The film never quite gets to that conversation.

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