When a film tackles basic subject matter that audiences have seen hundreds of times before, it needs to do something special to make that film stand out. Under the care of writer/director Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special does just that. At its core, it’s about the relationship between a parent and a child, and the sacrifices a parent will make in order to do what’s best for their child. That it’s told through a decidedly sci-fi take that’s willing to pose more questions than it answers just makes it something wonderfully unique.
Roy (Michael Shannon) is driving late one night with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and his best friend from childhood, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). They’re on the run, but from who – or what – we’re not initially sure. We’re also not sure where they’re heading.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that there’s something unique about Alton. The government is trying to track him down, and they’ve pulled in a special investigator named Sevier (Adam Driver) who’s just trying to figure out Alton’s purpose. A closed-off religious community that Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) were part of at one point also want Alton. For Roy, he has one purpose in life: keeping Alton away from everyone else who wants him for their own purposes. Lucas is, for a large amount of time, the only person Roy can trust, even though the two haven’t seen each other in years. Lucas is willing to do anything for Roy, though, just as Roy’s willing to do anything for Alton.
There’s not a lot of plot to what’s going on here, and normally that would irk me. But I was struck by the relationships that Midnight Special portrays instead. Roy and Lucas and Sarah each are doing everything in their power to do what’s best for Alton, even though their decisions clearly have and will continue to have damaging ramifications for each adult. It’s an extreme, but potent, example of the amount of sacrifice that’s sometimes required of any parent, and each of them rises to the challenge.
The film is aided by the tremendous performances on display, with Shannon and Dunst truly selling their roles as parents who are being torn open by the decisions they’re making. Lieberher is equally remarkable as their son, and he sells just why these two are willing to sacrifice. Edgerton adds some complexity to the story, as the relative outsider who’s more visibly torn by the decisions the group makes, while Driver helps convey a lot of the exposition in a way that makes it interesting.
Ultimately, though, Midnight Special owes its success to its creator. Jeff Nichols is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, and he has a gift of making films that eschew convention while still being accessible on some level. His work has grown from film to film, and it’s exciting to see the jump he’s made since making Mud with Matthew McConaughey. Considering this is his first film made under the auspices of a major studio, I’m curious to see where he goes from here. He was at one point in contention for Aquaman, just like pretty much any up-and-coming director these days is being courted for at least one major franchise picture, but he ultimately turned it down in favor of making films that were more personal, like this. It’s a bold, but welcome, choice, and I hope that he’s able to further explore whatever ideas he has in the future. His films to date show a filmmaker with something special, indeed.