Roy (Michael Shannon) frees or kidnaps his own son from a religious cult who thinks that his son gives them messages from God. Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) try to keep his son Alton safe, while they are being pursued by both the cult members and the FBI, who think his son is a weapon. Little Alton indeed has special powers.
Whether you will like this film, will depend on your affinity for wavy, new age-y ideas. Midnight Special starts as a tense thriller, but ends up with its head in the clouds, pondering higher beings and spirituality. It is comparable to the Nicholas Cage movie Knowing (2009), or perhaps an ambient, post-rock version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), with a precocious child. Am I talking aliens? The film leaves it open.
There is indeed ambient post-rock music playing throughout the movie and at first this gives a nice mysterious atmosphere. Like in the indie movie Monsters (2010), the ambient tones and the rhythms embody mystery and tension. But the latter half of the film betrays other sensibilities. If you take a look at the post-rock genre and some of the band and song titles, you get a feeling for the kind of sensibilities behind this: Explosions in the Sky. God Is an Astronaut. The Only Moment We Were Alone. They Move On Tracks Of Never-ending Light. And so on. It’s a modern day new ageism.
Director Jack Nichols starts this movie with a gritty realism, though. He is a great portrayer of small-town USA and situates his movies in the countryside of places such as Ohio and Texas. Take Shelter (2011), also with his favorite actor Michael Shannon, has the same unnerving tension and supernatural elements and Mud (2012) has the same thriller aspects. Midnight Special is clearly part of the same body of work, but moves a little bit too far into the supernatural, which will not sit well with many viewers. Indeed, it deflates the mystery of the first half a bit.
The first half is really good though. Especially when the little kid Alton shows his special powers for the first time, the effect is hair-raising. Because the film looks so realistic, unnatural powers suddenly come across as terrifying and dangerous. I think this is a very realistic portrayal of what the effect would be of supernatural power. It is profoundly disturbing. The acting is quite understated, but works very well. Shannon always shows a silent intensity and Joel Edgerton is a good grounding and balancing presence. Kirsten Dunst spends most of her time giving hugs and looking worried, but she has some good moments in the spotlight near the end. Adam Driver as the intrigued NSA agent is a bit underdeveloped. He came across as too insecure perhaps.
A strong theme is fatherhood in this film. This is the emotional heart of the film. Shannon is determined to protect his son, and the special powers of this boy may reflect how he thinks in his heart about his son. It overlaps with faith and believing as well. He believes in his son, in his strength. And that belief is necessary too to let children find their own way and go on their own paths.
The film cannot keep up the strength of the first half. Things slow down, people start staring at each other for too long with moody looks, and the plot starts stuttering. The main issue is that the story doesn’t change enough. It is a bare-boned story of running and that is ok and it is actually a good call by Nichols to keep this story small and personal. But, after an hour of them running from the FBI you start wishing for some more turnings in the plot. And the revelations near the end are just a little bit too out there.
An admirable and appealing film, that nevertheless disappoints a bit. It is certainly worth watching for the feeling of mystery and the visuals. Some nice goosebumps moments stay with you, but the eventual import of the movie feels a bit hollow.