Jeff Nichols is brilliant at finding optimism in the ominous. Take Shelter was explicit in that regard, with Michael Shannon as a hallucinating father whose family won’t give up on him; Mud, on the other hand, is a fairly standard coming-of-age story with an undercurrent of darkness that provides a slick and exciting edge.
His latest, Midnight Special, kicks that feeling back up to eleven. It once again stars the incomparable Shannon—De Niro to Nichols’ Scorsese—this time as the father of a son with special powers (Jaeden Lieberher). The boy, Alton Meyer, is intensely revered by a Sam Shepard-led Texas cult, one that Shannon’s Roy Tomlin belonged to as well. But now Tomlin has enlisted childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his estranged wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) to help Alton escape to a special location where his powers may reveal themselves further.
And what are those powers? Besides the earth-shaking blue light emanating from his eyes and an ability to pull radio signals (encrypted or otherwise) from the sky, it’s relatively unclear. Most of what takes place in Midnight Special is either unexplained or underexplored; Nichols wants you to draw your own conclusions, not spell out the details via extraneous exposition.
Even as a fan of “showing, not telling,” or sometimes skipping the showing entirely, there’s a whiff of missed opportunity here. To share a story with such potential complexity in a simple, straightforward manner keeps our focus on the characters and their development, which has always been Nichols’ wheelhouse. But when you lightly prop open the box of a fantastical world with limitless possibilities and then move along, you also open the door to “what if.” There’s a lingering sense that something better, if we just pivoted a few degrees, is percolating under the surface.
That said, Nichols still takes the time to hit many of the tropes we’ve come to expect from movies with this sort of packaging. The precocious child with special gifts! The inquisitive scientist or government agent who eventually joins the good guys! The breathtaking, movie-ending reveal!
But his touch is so light, the science-fiction elements nonexistent beyond Alton, that those tropes become callbacks or nods to stories past rather than cliches piling up in the corner. Alton isn’t being saved by Roy so much as using his father’s endless strength and perseverance to fulfill his own destiny. Paul Sevier (the aforementioned agent, played by Adam Driver doing his best Jeff Goldblum) provides most of the levity, much appreciated in certain moments.
And the ending, despite how neatly everything comes together, is sweet in its finality and impressive in its magnitude. You can debate whether Nichols understood the point of his own creation—quite a waste of time, although people are doing it anyway—but not that he put a final stamp on the story.
Much like Take Shelter was about family and Mud was about growing up, Midnight Special tells a story of fathers and sons. Theirs is a bond both tangible and metaphoric, unbreakable and in need of constant support. I’m not sure if it needed to be bookended with a toe-dip into very minor sci-fi, but at the very least we have proof that even lesser Nichols is art worth reckoning with.