Midnight Special (2016) by Jeff Nichols
Review by Zach Dennis
In his previous work, writer/director Jeff Nichols created American myths with Take Shelter and Mud — each focused on characters from the country’s heartland that are doing their best to make something out of their sometimes wild predicaments. In Midnight Special, the latest film by Nichols, the director again seems attracted to the idea of American mythology — channeling into our fear of the unknown, our escape through faith, and the dependence on knowledge to propel us through hard times.
While some of these points work well in Midnight Special, it could of been a little looser on the last one and given us some more evidence rather than awe with the latest wild predicament.
The film follows Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who we first see on an Amber Alert with authorities pleading with the public to send any information their way about the whereabouts of Alton, who they believe is with Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). Alton is with Tomlin, who is his birth father, and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and the trio are making their way out of Texas on suspicious circumstances. The Amber Alert attracts the attention of Rev. Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who asks one of his men to bring Alton back to him just a few minutes before the FBI busts into “The Ranch,” the compound that Meyer runs.
The Ranch is home to a cult with Meyer as their leader and the FBI tasks Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) with uncovering what its members are hiding and how they recovered a hoard of government coordinates without any technical aid.
Nichols has referred to Midnight Special as a mix between Close Encounters and Starman with the homage to the first become very apparent early on as we learn about Alton’s secret and why so many people want him returned to The Ranch. He is gifted with a myriad of skills including the ability to speak multiple languages, transmit knowledge to others, and communicate with the unseen world around him. Roy understands this, and with the help of Lucas, and later on Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), he attempts to bring Alton to wherever this prophecy seems headed (Tallahassee to be exact. You know, where all prophecies convene).
While Nichols understands the mystery and wonder aspect of Close Encounters (or even E.T.) with Midnight Special, it seems to be missing the element of humanity and character that put him on the map with Take Shelter and Mud. Not to say we don’t care for Alton or Roy or the others, but it seems more predetermined and required rather than an organic decision. The film opens with Roy seeming like a bad person, and that is quickly dismissed, but there doesn’t seem to be much nuance to his decision-making process outside of his love and affection for Alton.
Maybe that’s enough. Maybe a father’s love is what should be propelling him to perform these actions, but for the sake of the story, it just seems like more is bubbling under the surface and the story never takes any time to really explore that. The same can be said for Alton, a character that we are also required to root for, who has the most genuine moments of the entire cast (thanks to a solid performance by relative newcomer Lieberher) but also seems to be left in the dark.
We slowly come to understand his powers and his misplacement in this world, but there is just too much left unsaid that needed some discussion. Nichols relies on a lack of knowledge in his previous work and has a tendency to leave the audience with a lot more thinking after a film rather than concrete explanation, but it seems like he may have bit off more than he could chew with Midnight Special and our central characters.
Midnight Special is not lacking in compelling moments. Early on, the journey by Roy, Alton, and Lucas is ripe with some strong moral moments that show the overarching journey that is required with this task, but again, these are far and few. Nichols also attempts to explore faith and the hold in can have on America’s heartland with the group of cult members standing in as martyrs.
He succeeds at showing the blindness that can come from faith and following what one believes to be true above all, and those moments begin to elevate the writing before finding its way back to Alton’s journey. They shouldn’t of been the prime focus, but there seemed to be a real authenticity to these interviews conducted by Sevier and the answers that the people would give back, and how they link to a time when religion becomes a flag for misunderstanding and ignorance in some respects.
Midnight Special has moments of greatness, but forgets that its characters need fleshing out to be truly realized in this fantastical journey. It is one thing to stand behind the main character as he tries to accomplish his goal just because he is the main character, but it is another thing not to give us enough to really feel like we know these people as Roy Tomlin or Sarah Tomlin or Alton Meyer rather than the familiarity that we see from them in ourselves and our lives.