His costume consists of swimming goggles and a bedsheet, which he drapes over his shoulders like a cape. His powers are far-reaching and mysterious, including the ability to hear and repeat satellite transmissions, as well as emit a powerful ray of light from his eyes. But Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is no superhero. He’s only an 8-year-old boy.
The delight of Midnight Special, from writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories), is the way it lightly touches on so many familiar genres without indulging in the clichés of any of them. In many ways, this is a comic-book origin story, the tale of a young superhero coming to terms with his powers. (Alton reads Superman comics under that bedsheet in case we don’t get the connection.) Yet Nichols also roots the movie in the more realistic concerns of an intimate family drama. Michael Shannon plays Roy, Alton’s father, and as crazy as things get — and Midnight Special eventually veers into far-out, Close Encounters-style science fiction — Shannon always keeps things grounded with his open-hearted portrayal of a dad who simply wants to protect his son.
Alton needs protection, for he and Roy are on the run from the Texas doomsday cult to which they used to belong. The cult’s leader (Sam Shepard) regards Alton as some sort of prophet, believing the transmissions he repeats to be the “words of the Lord.” Fearing for Alton’s safety, Roy flees the cult’s ranch with the help of a friend (Joel Edgerton) and reunites with Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), who defected from the ranch some years earlier. Pursuing them all, however, are not only henchmen from the ranch, but also government agents who have learned of Alton’s powers. (Adam Driver has a nice supporting part as a sympathetic NSA researcher.)
As long as the movie leaves us somewhere between the world of miracles and the world of science, it has a wonderful air of mystery.
This setup allows for an intriguing dichotomy. The cultists see Alton as a purely spiritual figure, a divinely appointed pathway to nothing less than their salvation. The government agents see him as a biological anomaly that needs to be captured, studied and controlled. As long as the movie leaves us in the dark — somewhere between the world of miracles and the world of science — Midnight Special has a wonderful air of mystery. And I was content to be left in that space, all the way through the ending. But Nichols chooses to offer an explanation to Alton about two thirds of the way into the film. The revelation clarifies the boy’s identity, but also raises a whole host of logistical questions that the movie never quite gets around to answering.
Nevertheless, Nichols is enough of a craftsman to make this mostly a minor frustration. We learn at the start of the film that Alton cannot endure sunlight, so the first half of Midnight Special takes place amidst claustrophobic nighttime shadows. The fugitives travel only under the cover of darkness (at one point Lucas, played by Edgerton, even turns their car’s headlights off and drives with night-vision goggles) and they cover the windows of their hotel rooms with pieces of cardboard. When Alton’s condition changes about halfway through (for reasons I won’t reveal) and he can be exposed to the daylight, Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone shift the visual scheme to include bright daytime sequences and sunny natural vistas. It’s as if the theater had windows and they were suddenly thrown open.
The film opens up even further with its wildly ambitious climax. Whether or not you buy the logic at work that brought the movie to this point (and I didn’t, entirely), there is no denying that Nichols stages something that has the giddiness, if not the grandeur, of sci-fi visionaries like Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg. Midnight Special may not be Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Inception (or, to return to the superhero conceit, The Dark Knight). But in its best moments, the movie comes awfully close.