It's a cliché to say that Midnight Special is a movie for people who care more about the journey than the destination. But since the new film from writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) works best as a very strange road-trip movie, that cliché feels apropos.
On the page, the film offers almost no new ideas. It's a story woven from fond memories of '80s movies, laced with Americana — like a dream a kid might have after a double feature of E.T. and Starman at the neighborhood drive-in. On the screen, however, it grabs us with its on-the-run storytelling, then seduces us with its moody atmosphere.
The film opens with its heroes on the run in the literal sense. Roy (Michael Shannon) and his 8-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), are fleeing a cult. Alton has been legally adopted by the group's leader (Sam Shepard), who regards the boy as a harbinger of apocalypse and a means to salvation.
Granted, Alton isn't exactly normal. He wears goggles to forestall episodes in which he shoots light from his eyes; when he "speaks in tongues," he recites secret codes transmitted by government satellites.
These feats have attracted the attention of the feds, who want to lock Alton down for national security reasons. Armed with just an old muscle car and a few helpers — including a loyal friend (Joel Edgerton) with gun skills — Roy must outrun or outwit the cultists and the U.S. government on the way to a mysterious rendezvous point.
Much of Midnight Special involves people driving fast at night (Alton shuns the daylight), driven by motives that could be mad, mystical or both. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film follows several groups of people — some government agents, some crackpots — as they converge on a single destination where they may find worlds beyond their imagination, or nothing at all.
Perhaps the movie's greatest flaw is that the miracle boy is too otherworldly and opaque to register as anything but a trope. When Alton is seen reading comics, one wonders if his character could be an unorthodox take on an origin story — the superhero as a distant, almost unsympathetic figure.
But Alton isn't the real focus of the drama — his father is. With just a few lines, Shannon conveys Roy's complete and unquestioning willingness to do what his son needs from him, honed over years of doubt and struggle. Every character in the film is defined by a simple choice — to aid Alton on his own terms, or to exploit him. Yet strong performances by Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst (as Alton's mother) and Adam Driver (in the François Truffaut role) flesh out that paper-thin dilemma.
The film's denouement is bound to be divisive, much like the ending of Take Shelter — too much revelation for some viewers, not enough for others. Nichols is a director who seems inexorably drawn to the numinous, yet his strength lies in grounding his stories firmly in particular patches of dirt. (Mud's title was apt.) The southern landscapes give Midnight Special a down-home realness that compensates for the hot air of its high-concept plot. In the film's best scene, a simple sunrise over the tree line is imbued with dread, then with exhilaration. The CG effects that cap that moment feel anticlimactic, even unnecessary.
Watching that scene, one may be reminded of the folk song for which the film is named, in which a jailbird begs the light of a passing train to "shine on me." To an imprisoned mind, an ordinary beacon can represent salvation. When Roy gets glimpses of his son's true origin, his face doesn't show a full-fledged Spielbergian "look of wonder," just that prisoner's fleeting, bittersweet yearning. And that nuance makes this movie a bit special.