These days, it’s more than common for films to play with genre conventions, often steering into any numbers of tropes or cliché. With his newest entry, Jeff Nichols plays with many heightened elements that may sound ridiculous, but ties them back into a powerful and poignant family drama, though it is far from a standard one. The plot revolves around Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), an eight-year-old boy with strange powers. At the film’s outset, he is on the run, having been “kidnapped” by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) from a well-armed Texas cult who had adopted him, and consider him a prophet. In addition to a pair of dangerous henchmen from the cult, Roy and Alton are also chased by government agents who discover Alton’s ability to interface with surveillance satellites (only one of of his many bizarre powers). Roy is joined by his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as they help Alton reach a location on the Gulf Coast, to which he is drawn by the otherworldly engine behind his abilities.
On paper, that’s a lot of elements to tie together, let alone in a way that feels believable. Luckily, the performances, direction, and writing of the characters and their motivations all lend credibility of the story, and give the film the weight necessary to invest the audience in the characters’ journey. Given that the adults have all witnessed incredible things from Alton, they are driven to uncompromising lengths to accomplish their respective missions. Even though the film cannot make the viewer feel the same sense of cosmic enlightenment that comes over Alton’s witnesses, Nichols’ tense direction (emphasized by effective use of close-up shots) and fantastic performances are able to make the displays of Alton’s abilities genuinely awe-inspiring. This not only gives the audience a taste of the bizarre majesty of these powers, but also makes clear the reasons why Roy, Lucas, and the cult members are willing to resort to extreme measures to reach their goals.
Rounding out the cast is Adam Driver as an NSA analyst tasked with tracking Alton, Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother, and a brief but subtly terrifying turn from Sam Shepard as the cult’s leader and Alton’s legally adoptive father. Driver functions as the audience surrogate, which is a vital role, given that the narrative beings in media res, with background context doled out sparingly, if at all. Though neither his nor the audience’s appetite for concrete answers is ever fully sated, his curiosity and levity is refreshing, offsetting the constant tension and peril of Alton, Roy, and Lucas’ journey. The performances of Shannon and Edgerton really shine in their understanding of the dangerous and desperate situation they are in, which occasionally even calls for violence. The recognition of these consequences is communicated well, and manifest in ways that are not only believable, but reinforce the imperative nature of their quest, which is important, given the lack of information provided to the audience.
Despite the extensive use of heightened genre conceits, the family dynamic between Alton, Roy, and Dunst’s Sarah tethers the film to a very relatable emotional foundation. Though their devotion to Alton is amplified by the dramatic circumstances, their role as parents who only want the best for their child lends remarkably effective catharsis to the film’s conclusion. This motivation of Roy and Sarah also provides some internal conflict, as they come to realize that their son’s potential might be so great, his future may not include them, a thought representative of the film’s considerable thematic depth.
Rarely do such a wide variety of disparate elements come together and feel cohesive, let alone remain grounded it in such a believable emotional center. This is one of the many impressive feats Nichols has accomplished here. On the surface, Midnight Special‘s genre elements distinguish it from his previous filmography, but the themes explored are consistent with much of his previous work, particularly 2011’s Take Shelter, which also features Shannon as a devoted father going to incredible lengths to protect his family. Though the narrative strangeness and lack of definitive explanations may alienate many viewers, the thoroughly eerie tone, intense performances, and deeply embedded themes make it a uniquely singular experience.
Image above: SciFiNow