Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, is two films in one. One of them is a very good drama about a father’s love for his son. The other is science fiction, and it’s pretty awful. Fortunately, the former is good enough to make me recommend the film, but be prepared for some eye-rolling.
The film starts with two men (Micheal Shannon and Joel Edgerton), and a small boy (Jaeden Lieberher) on the run, hiding out in a motel. Only over the course of the film do we learn details: Shannon is the boy’s father, and he has snatched him from a religious cult, run by Sam Shepard. Edgerton is a childhood friend and Texas state trooper, who is a friend we all need, because he even goes so far as to shoot another cop. The boy has some sort of power that makes him wear swim goggles and stay out of daylight.
Shepard’s henchmen are after the boy, as is the federal government, including a geeky NSA agent (Adam Driver). The kid is able to pull a satellite out of the sky, knowing it was spying on him. He also shoots light beams out his eyes, but it’s unclear what this does.
Midnight Special is essentially a chase movie, with Shannon trying to get the kid to a certain spot at a certain time, with the coordinates and dates given to him by his son. The church thinks he’s going to save them from the end of the world, and the government probably wants to use him as a weapon. All of this is pretty suspenseful.
However, the sci-fi aspects are kind of warmed over Spielberg (I thought of Close Encounters of the Third Kind many times during the film). Nichols’ first three features dealt with the wordly, and were more accomplished, though Take Shelter has some connection to this one, given the fear that the lead actor (Shannon, in both cases) expresses. But I found this aspect of the plot to be childish and not well thought out. I have to keep this short to avoid spoilers, but the ending is pretty ridiculous, given it’s similarities to Close Encounters, and even almost forty years later not up to that film’s emotional power or special effects.
What does work is the relationship with Shannon and Lieberher. Shannon is one of our best actors, and the kid, while not given a lot to do, is very capable. The love between is palpable, and when the kid’s mother, Kirsten Dunst, is added to the mix, if becomes a nice family drama.
If Midnight Special had left out the paranormal aspects I would have liked it a lot better.