The increasingly impressive Jeff Nichols continues to diversify as a filmmaker, his follow-up to brilliant Southern drama Mud (2012), an evocative indie sci-fi film in which a young boy with a special gift is hunted down by government agencies and a cult looking to exploit him for the purpose of fulfilling a religious prophecy. As Midnight Special (2016) opens, the boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), has been abducted from the cult by his natural father Roy (regular Nichols muse Michael Shannon) and an old friend, renegade state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Roy’s face is pasted all over the news and around every corner lurks the threat of capture.
Taking to the road, we learn incrementally of important finer details, including a time and place that has special significance. Roy’s sole purpose becomes the necessity to transport Alton to that location, whilst along the way they pick up the boy’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). In alternating scenes we see government science boffin Sevier (Adam Driver) attempting to work the pieces of the puzzle from the ‘official’ perspective, predicting where the boy will be and how his employers can acquire him for their own purposes.
The mystery generated in the early scenes and maintained throughout is a large part of Midnight Special. Nichols poses tantalising questions – the most central of which is what exactly will happen will they reach the appointed place at the appointed time? We get glimpses of Alton’s startling, otherworldly gifts but how he acquired them remains unanswered. Nichols doesn’t over-cram his screenplay with fleshed-out details which may be a major flaw for many looking to plough through the inscrutability but he creates a uneasy tone that intrigues with a hint of danger and supernatural possibility.
Shannon has an intense, glowering presence like few other actors and here he mostly keeps Roy’s emotional extremes to a minimum, internalizing his frustration and pain to the point that he feels like he must inevitably combust. What is conveyed is Roy’s love for his son and his desire to play an important role in transporting his most precious cargo. This in turn will lead to vindication of the boy’s prognostications as he sets about taking any means necessary – including highly unlawful ones – to get Alton to that appointed location.
The mood of the film is distinctly nostalgic. This ponderous but never predictable indie sci-fi road trip comes with a heavy Starman (1984) vibe attached to it. The throwback feel is only enhanced by David Wingo’s mostly synthesised score which features a brilliant, haunting main theme. The awe and wonder evoked by the film’s major set-piece near the end may be just enough of a payoff to justify the director’s generally oblique approach to the material. Midnight Special is flawed, undoubtedly, but for me there’s enough distinctiveness attributable to Nichols’ approach on display to believe that he’s further cemented his growing reputation as one of American independent cinema’s most promising talents.