In a 2007 TED Talk, director J. J. Abrams revealed the inspiration for his creative vision: a “mystery box” from a midtown Manhattan magic store that has remained unopened since he purchased it as a child. “What are stories, but mystery boxes?” Abrams explained. “What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to the theater, you’re just so excited to see anything— the moment the lights go down is often the best part.”
So it is with “Midnight Special,” a small-time, supernatural drama from writer-director Jeff Nichols that blends the Abrams approach to storytelling with the intimacy of a Spielberg classic. In the current Hollywood climate, storms of viral marketing and near-pathological media attention ensure that moviegoers are so well informed on upcoming epics (think: “Batman v. Superman” and “Captain America: Civil War”) that actually going to see the movies feels like a rote formality. By contrast, “Midnight Special” opened in limited release with relatively little preceding fanfair, making that tantalizing moment when the lights go down feel all the more exhilarating. “Midnight Special” thrives on the mystery box formula (much like Abrams’s recently released, hush-hush production, “10 Cloverfield Lane”) by holding its secrets close to its chest. But it also flourishes as a profound exploration of familial love and personal values, grounding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
“Midnight Special” marks Nichols’s first foray into the science fiction genre, after 2011 film festival darling “Take Shelter” and the McConaissance-initiating “Mud” in 2012, but it is his fifth collaboration with actor Michael Shannon. Shannon shines as Roy, father to Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a child born with supernatural powers who is worshipped by a religious sect with morally dubious leadership. A small group of superb supporting characters lends the film additional gravitas: Joel Edgerton (“Black Mass”) as Roy’s buddy Lucas, a former cop; Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother, Sarah, in a one-note but still effective performance; and Adam Driver, coming off of a very different role in a rather huger sci-fi epic, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” as NSA codebreaker and “Alton Meyer expert” Paul Sevier.
“Midnight Special” picks up in medias res, chugging forward while delivering backstory in tiny, cinematic morsels: news bulletins, brief lines of dialogue, and significant glances serve to lay the scene and clarify the stakes. David Wingo’s captivating score shifts between a melodious piano theme and a pulse-pounding bass, setting the tone for the film’s interplay between the wonder of the supernatural and the suspense of an “on the run” thriller. Early on, as the whirlwind of mystery picks up, religious leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) turns to the FBI officers investigating Alton Meyer and muses, “You have no clue what you’re dealing with, do you?” At this point, neither do we— and it’s a scintillating feeling.
“Midnight Special” takes its time answering the little questions (Who is this kid? What can he do? What’s going on?) while steadily building up the insurmountable questions of “how” and “why.” Many elements of the story remain unanswered, and it is in this regard that “Midnight Special” truly sets itself apart. Due to a side-effect of Alton’s powers, much of the film takes place at night, with breathtaking sunrises and sunsets marking the rotation of night and day, and there’s a storytelling benefit in (literally and metaphorically) leaving the audience in the dark: it precludes narrative spoon-feeding while allowing for a more active partnership between the filmmaker and the viewer. This richly drawn film needs you, the moviegoer, to use both your brain and your heart.
“Midnight Special” is the rare film that infuses its characters with as much complexity as it does its mystery, ensuring that the humanity at its core does not get lost in supernatural splendor. Roy burns with a quiet but fierce love for his child; he is gentle and caring from the outset, and his steadfast belief in the boy is never questioned as he spirits Alton away from institutions that aim to use him for their own gain. When Roy tucks his son into bed, adorning his youthful face with aqua-colored goggles and bright orange headphones, his tenderness is palpable, as though Alton were just another kid with a strange malady. Roy and Alton’s relationship is the beating heart of this story, and it is to the credit of both the actors and Nichols himself that father and son exhibit such magnetizing emotion. Through little dialogue, Lieberher, resplendent and mature beyond his years, indicates that there is luminous depth to Alton, while every crinkle of Shannon’s eyes demonstrates the aching burdens of parenthood. “You don’t have to worry about me,” Alton assures him. “I’ll always worry about you, Alton,” Roy responds. “That’s the deal.” You’d smile if you weren’t too busy trying to hide your sniffling.
“Midnight Special” also touches on weightier themes without forcing them to sweat it out under the spotlight. How would people react to the appearance of the supernatural? Calvin Meyer’s reverent cult is already established before the opening credits, and the FBI’s briskly bureaucratic manhunt is well underway as the story begins. Rather, by delving into the psyches of the characters, the film is more subtly able to explore the limits and excesses of knowledge and power. In one ironic scene, Alton, reading a Superman comic by flashlight in the back of a darkened car, asks Roy about kryptonite, and Roy berates Lucas for giving Alton the comic book in the first place, insisting that Alton “needs to know what’s real.” But knowledge proves to be an elusive concept; instead, faith and belief take center stage. As Meyer puts it at the conclusion of a sermon: “To know the source of such things is to know our place in the world.” “Midnight Special” revels in this search for purpose, embracing an all-too-rare sense of awe and wonder.