Editor’s Notes: Midnight Special is currently open in limited release.
Jeff Nichols has seldom shied away from using empty expanses to breed a sense of foreboding – be it the twisted waters of Arkansas in Mud or the post-apocalyptic horizons of Ohio in Take Shelter. In Midnight Special, he does quite the same with the flatlands of rural Texas, something that has been tried and tested by many filmmakers to be stimulating. But, Nichols also uses it to establish a sense of speed in its opening moments. The titular scene, where Lucas (played by Joel Edgerton) puts on his night-vision glasses, turns all lights in his gray Chevelle off and speeds into a meandering highway, is but suggestive of how much of the film relies on the road, its automobiles and darkness.
Midnight Special is about Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher), a child with the supernatural ability to receive and interact with electromagnetic fields, who is pursued by two groups of great influence and power in the region – the FBI and a Texan doomsday cult - each drowned in their own beliefs and expectations from the kid. This contrasts with the emotional pursuit by Alton’s own parents, who were separated from him for long periods since his birth and have decided to protect him at all costs from both the groups as well as the sun.
For the first half of the movie, quite like its protagonist, we almost never get to see anything in bright light, which serves as great aesthetic tension – building a sense of claustrophobia through its dim-lit motel rooms, suburban houses and wide spaces around desolate gas stations. The film features car chases, standoffs, and utopian juxtapositions drenched in special effects. The suspense breaks in a very underwhelming fashion, but it does so in great contrast to the rest of the film – in blinding light and solemn appearances as opposed to a barely lit room with its cardboard-plastered windows.
Midnight Special particularly excels in its scenes featuring Sarah and Roy (played by Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon), where it weaves a complex tale of faith and acceptance as a part of parenthood as they constantly struggle to understand their son – be it when Roy confesses that he likes worrying about Alton, or Sarah’s cathartic acceptance of having to face that she is left alone facing an open field. Their complete lack of surprise at the sight of Alton’s earth shattering fits and arbitrary instructions reflects on their oppressive, but devout upbringing in the cult, referred to in the film as ‘the Ranch’.
Nichols builds suspense with not just stunning visual aesthetics or a sublime repeating piano theme, but also by revealing almost nothing about important characters. Literally nothing is known about Paul Sevier (played by Adam Driver) besides his name and job as an NSA investigator. However, we are shown his nervous steps towards a captive Alton and quick awkward conversations with Lucas. One of the men from the ranch, in pursuit of Alton, happens to remark at one point in the movie, about his past as an electrician and his own bemusement at what has become of him.
At a little over a hundred minutes long, Midnight Special is a tale neatly packed in cling-wrap with its characters extending only until the horizon of relevance and acts of revelation peppered across the story turning it into a Twilight Zone episode relying on an ulterior plot that forever eludes the viewers’ grasp.