With “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols’s fourth film (“Mud, “Take Shelter”), Nichols remains the best emerging American director today, capable of infusing any genre with earthy, Americana trappings and unpacking the intimate character drama within. “Midnight Special” channels sci-fi, noir and family melodrama in unpredictable, startling ways and resembles a modern day stab at the personal conflict of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the spirituality of “Contact.”
Except the story of “Midnight Special” defies easy classification and blends genres with thrilling results. At its very core a chase film, “Midnight Special” begins with Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run for having abducted a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). He and a former cop named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are trying to get Alton to an undisclosed location while evading a religious cult who sees Alton as their savior and the FBI who believes Alton knows confidential government information. Roy however is really Alton’s birth father, separated from him by the cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard).
Above the sci-fi tension and conspiracy theories, the father-son dynamic between Alton and Roy truly drives “Midnight Special.” Alton possesses untold powers that change and grow more intense and severe the more they remain unchecked, from being able to unconsciously tap into radio frequencies to locking eyes with powerful blue tractor beams of light. Roy can’t fully comprehend all that’s happening to Alton, covering his eyes with blue swim goggles and transporting him only at night, but he displays a need to protect him above any greater cause the boy might represent to the cult or to the government.
As a result, Shannon proves a touching father figure. His eyes and body language are more muted and less intense than in many of his other fiery roles, but he’s gruff and a man of few words in a way that will be familiar to many fathers and sons. “I like worrying about you. I’ll always worry about you Alton. That’s the deal,” he says. All this family drama weaves wonderfully within “Midnight Special’s” denser scientific jargon and spiritual underpinnings. The ambiguous nature of Alton’s abilities and ties to another world all serve the film’s mystery and suspense.
And “Midnight Special” is highly entertaining and beguiling. Nichols seeps the film in darkness and other-worldly lens flares. The quiet, procedural and noir-like filmmaking make Alton’s skills all the more startling when the fireworks begin. “Midnight Special” even has a sense of humor. Adam Driver (“Girls,” “The Force Awakens”) as the NSA analyst tracking Alton is out of place in the best way possible. He has an awkward, nerdy charm that’s practically foreign to the more rural sensibilities of the rest of the cast.
With “Midnight Special” Nichols has proven that he can take a larger budget and still deliver the intimate character drama of an indie. As a director and screenwriter, Nichols has as much untapped potential as Alton.