Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed the low-key and intimate Mud, the story of a boy who befriends a fugitive, inverts the dynamic in this serious sci-fi movie about a father taking the son he’s broken out of Sam Shepard’s “ranch”, a southern religious commune (or cult), to an otherworldly rendezvous. Like John Carpenter’s Starman, this a road movie with the government in pursuit, and Nichols, perhaps a fan, borrows a little more than that. This isn’t a high-concept effects driven spectacular, rather a character centred drama that pivots on the relationship between those on the road; a movie that keeps the fantastical elements in the background, creating a palpable sense of emerging wonder, of unease, of the unknown.
Nichols as both writer and director is skilled at getting naturalistic performances from his actors, and the tangible bond between father Michael Shannon and Star Child Jaeden Lieberher, gives the film both a heart and a head. “It’s a shame,” says in-tow state trooper Joel Edgerton, “you’d have made a fine family otherwise”, and it’s that inevitable trajectory, the separation of a child from his parents that due to extraordinary circumstances, never had a chance, that adds a touching, even tragic dimension to the story. You cried when E.T left Eliot and boarded his ship. Midnight Special promises a similar wrench, except Nichols, anathema to Spielbergian levels of manipulation and stylisation, will deliver it in wordless exchanges, reserved close ups. It’s a mature approach. This is sci-fi for those who’ve put away childish things.
Set in the deeply religious south, Midnight Special takes the opportunity to provocatively refract the boy Alton’s opaque abilities, through the prism of faith. Not for nothing are his transcendent abilities, the means to tune into earthly signals and confer contentment onto others, interpreted by his Dad’s former congregation as messianic. His description of his world, on top of ours, populated by beings of light, has heavenly connotations. Even Shannon, whose quiet and reflective character seems inclined toward a more pragmatic worldview, believes his boy to have a higher purpose, on the path to a literal ascension. Nichols either doesn’t know or doesn’t care with that purpose is, and questions around Alton’s conception and how his special nature developed in a human child remain unanswered until the very last shot, but it’s not necessary to know. Special’s sensible enough to leave room for interpretation – a human story with a mythic underpinning, of the kind beloved in that part of the world.
Nichols’ understated storytelling is a great palate cleanser in an era of emphatic overstatement and four quadrant friendly exposition, and as such won’t be to everyone’s taste. But those willing to embrace the world of the unsaid and the philosophical, will find Midnight Special a very fine movie indeed.