As in his own Take Shelter and Mud, director Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special laces a story of filial and marital angst with sudden violence and off-kilter genre trappings, creating, as many have noted, a strange mix of early Spielberg, golden age John Carpenter, and maybe a little vintage Stephen King. Nichols’s primary stroke of genius is an almost ruthless lack of exposition: We’re thrown in with Roy (Michael Shannon), his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), and State trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton), all apparently on the run from a shady religious concern and a canny NSA agent (Adam Driver). It soon becomes evident that Alton possesses some nebulous supernatural powers; likewise, the rift between Roy and estranged wife Saran (Kirsten Dunst) need not be described—it’s clear that caring for whatever Alton might be has done a number on their marriage. There’s no superfluous dialogue and little information is given that characters wouldn’t either already know or have a reason to articulate. This lends Midnight Special a great deal of momentum and roots the characters’ entanglements in a more believable landscape of guarded reserve and suppressed fear.
Nichols’s primary stroke of genius is an almost ruthless lack of exposition.
And about that landscape: Everything in Midnight Special takes place on deserted country roads, in trucks stops, and in sparsely appointed motel rooms, with the notable exception of the sterile government interrogation room in which the Feds try to get information out of little Alton. It’s all shot in lovely lens-flared Panavision, heavily reminiscent of classic action cinematographers like Dean Cundey or Peter Hyams. The only letdown is Midnight Special‘s final act, which unfortunately forces itself into some sort of spectacular payoff when something more abrupt and mysterious might have sufficed. What we get is a rather bland collection of special effects and narrative resolutions that accidentally make Midnight Special look like a stealth spinoff of last year’s weirdo maudit Tomorrowland (and just as unsatisfying). Still this is some endearingly idiosyncratic work—a not-quite-there, but tantalizingly close, mashup of The Sugarland Express and Starman.