Past the Popcorn: Midnight Special Delivers in a Big (if not Flashy) Way

by Jeff Walls

Writer/Director Jeff Nichols has been making some of the most interesting independent films over the past few years. Take Shelter and Mud were both critical favorites, but neither really found a wide audience. While the director’s latest movie, Midnight Special, maintains the unique, personal feel of his previous films, it comes in a more blockbuster-friendly package. As described by the director himself, the movie is a “sci-fi chase film.” Whether the movie finds a wide audience or not will largely depend on how much good word-of-mouth the movie gets, but one thing is for sure, it certainly deserves some.

The movie opens like a kidnapping thriller. A news report informs us that a young boy named Alton has been reported missing and he was last seen in the company of a man named Roy. We are in the room occupied by the two, but Alton does not act like a boy being held against his will. We soon learn that Roy is his father and, with the help of Roy’s friend Lucas, they are on the run from both government authorities and a cult-like religious group called “The Ranch.” Alton, it turns out, has some kind of special power. He often speaks an indecipherable language filled with what seem like random numbers, which the members of The Ranch have come to believe are messages from God.

midnight-special-insetThe government has a different interpretation. They believe that the boy may be some kind of weapon or spy, since the numbered messages he has been reciting are secret codes and coordinates the government has been sending through satellites. Roy and Lucas, along with the help of Alton’s mother Sarah, must do whatever they can to protect the boy and deliver him to a certain location on a certain day, where they believe something important will happen.

What Midnight Special does best is unfold its mystery methodically, one revelation at a time. At the center of the mystery is Alton, played terrifically by Jaeden Lieberher. When we first meet Alton, he seems like just another quirky movie kid. He wears bright blue swim goggles and noise-cancelling headphones while reading comic books under a bed sheet. We soon learn, though, that there is a reason for the goggles, there is a reason for the headphones, and there is a reason why they always travel at night and it is not just because they are trying to avoid capture. We then slowly learn more about him with each encounter and stop along the journey, leading to a conclusion worth of Steven Spielberg’s best early work.

Director Nichols has cited Spielberg’s work as one of his inspiration for the film, as well as the films of John Carpenter. He has also indicated that the movie is about parenthood and that is directly apparent. Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst play the boy’s parents and they are determined to protect their son and do what is best for him, even if they do not fully understand exactly what that is.  Joel Edgerton’s character Lucas is also intriguing because his character’s motivations are not very clear at the beginning of the movie. He tells us early that he will do whatever it takes to help Alton, even while things around him just get crazier and crazier, but it is not until later in the film when we are told why.

The build up to the fantastical final act is mostly suspense and drama, so it is nice when Adam Driver shows up as a government agent who brings a little sense of humor to the movie. It adds another element to a movie that is packed with surprises. In a world where special effects blockbusters cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, it is nice to see that great sci-fi stories can still be told on a lesser budget and a more human level. Midnight Special is that special kind of movie.

Midnight Special is now playing at The Egyptian downtown. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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