A man (Michael Shannon) attempts to escape the authorities with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) after finding out the child has special powers.
Nichols gives us very little to go on in the opening scenes. A tinny news report provides some background before we are immediately plunged into literal and figurative darkness, as the father and son hit the road with the lights off. It’s gloomy, atmospheric and menacing; those familiar with Take Shelter will recognise the tone. Once more Nichols instils a great sense of foreboding right from the get go.
This is a film that owes a lot to the lower budget, quiet science fiction films of the 70s and 80s. We are given very little information throughout, which is effective until the film actually has to begin to wrap it up and we start to realise perhaps Midnight Special isn’t really going anywhere special at all.
Ambiguity is not always the enemy of the big screen. Under the Skin springs to mind as a fine example of a well made film that keeps us guessing. However, Midnight Special doesn’t commit to keeping the sense of mystery alive, and the pay-off simply does not match the build-up.
Also working against the film is the short time spent with the supporting cast. Joel Edgerton plays a friend who rides with the duo for most of the film, and gets a chance to make his mark. On the other hand Kirsten Dunst (the mother) and Adam Driver (an NSA agent working to solve the case) really needed more screen time.
The same could be said about the cult aspect of the story. Alton was living in a cult who worshipped him, until being stolen back by his father. We don’t see any of this, instead we just get interviews with the cult members as part of the investigation. It’s underdeveloped and as a result, out of place.
Still, Midnight Special is original, beauftiful and engrossing. Nichols’ style grounds the film in reality, making it more suspenseful thriller than science fiction. A low-fi gem.