It’s becoming a common occurrence to see low-budget festival-targeted science fiction make its way into theaters this time of year, and much like last year’s Ex Machina, I think Midnight Special is going to be remembered as something… well, pretty special. Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud and Take Shelter) has always been a proponent of story-showing rather than story-telling, and his stab at science fiction is a grand demonstration of just how damn good he is at it. Seriously, what we have here is a modern classic that I already want to see again, just to try and catch any details I may have (and probably did) miss the first time around.
The film opens on Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) taking Roy’s son Alton out into the night as an Amber alert plays on the television, telling us that Alton has been abducted from his home on a place ominously known as The Ranch. Alton wears protective goggles over his eyes which sometimes emit a strange glow, and he has a strange relationship with electronic devices. The federal government is interested in Alton for reasons relating to his powers, as is the cultish Ranch at which Alton was raised, so they both send agents in search of Roy and Alton, hoping to find them first as the fugitives pursue an unknown goal.
If that synopsis seems vague, that was my intention, as it is just about as vague as the film's first act. This is a film that relies heavily on its ability to tease information that you think you need to know, yet only giving it to you when you truly need to know it. In no way does this prevent the film from being compelling, as the central relationship between father and son that propels the narrative is immediately relatable, and their struggle is all the more harrowing for our not having all the facts yet. The backgrounds and narrative significance of plot points and side characters such as Lucas or an FBI investigator (Adam Driver) are kept vague until necessary to provide a sense of tension, which always pays off in the form of a reveal that is rarely directly expository.
This all comes together through some fantastic performances. Michael Shannon is one of the best character actors working today, and his persistently grim determination is detailed with subtle nuances that make him incredibly engaging to watch. Edgerton and Driver both also acquit themselves well, surprisingly adding some comic beats that would feel out of place if they weren’t so well executed in relieving the persistent tension the film provides. Even Kirsten Dunst, a relatively lackluster actress who plays Alton’s estranged mother, manages to carry the climactic scene of the film entirely on her facial expressions, so bravo for that. The only potentially weak performance is that of Jaeden Leiberher, the child who plays Alton. I wouldn’t call him bad, and the wooden performance is actually suitable for the character, so the lack of range he may or may not exhibit isn’t ultimately that important.
I hesitate to say more, because I’m still enthralled by how effective Midnight Special was at telling an engaging tale through twists and turns conveyed through the uniquely visual nature of cinema, and I don’t want to taint anyone’s first viewing. I was actually worried for much of the runtime that one of the film’s central mysteries would remain unresolved, and yet, wordlessly, the final shot of the film not only answered my questions, but it recontextualized the entire experience to make it feel complete in a way I would never have expected. This is how you show a story to your audience. This is how you make a memorable cinematic experience. This is how you make a great film.