Having nothing whatever to do with the early 1970s late-night rock concert TV show, Jeff Nichols latest, Midnight Special, is the writer-director’s most complex and accomplished film to date. It is also almost certain not to be as popular as his modern, dark rethinking of the world of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Mud (2012). That’s both a pity and understandable. In the sense of being a solid, crowd-pleasing (assuming the crowd is fairly discerning) film, Mud is a tough act to follow. It is challenging, but in a way that doesn’t keep it from being hard to like. Even at its darkest, Mud had a special, almost comforting quality. That is in little evidence in this deliberately enigmatic new film that suggests more than it outright says — a trait bound to alienate some viewers and intrigue others.
Midnight Special might be said to be a mash-up of Mud with Nichols’ previous film Take Shelter (2011). In the sense that it’s a rural tale mixed with sci-fi and allegory, that’s true enough. However, Midnight Special — as the song from which it draws its title implies (“Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me”) — is at least cautiously, if ambiguously, optimistic. Take Shelter, on the other hand, is a huge downer everywhere you look. Midnight Special is many things — some more successful than others — but it is very much a tale of transcendence. That is also quite probably why it isn’t always completely successful. Transcendence is hard to pull off and harder still to pull off without getting a laugh — or at least a groan.
The film is in no hurry to explain what is going on, and, for that matter, it never actually does explain everything. All we know is that there’s this boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who interests both the vaguely-defined End Times cult (who think he’s a prophet) and the federal government (which is equally sure Alton is some kind of threat). Even this information is slowly doled out over the first section of the film. We have to piece it together from Alton’s “kidnapping” by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) — a former cult member himself — and his father’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and the secrecy surrounding it all. Little is revealed. Even less is discussed. We know — though we don’t know why — from the onset that Alton is (as the ad campaign tells us) “not like us.” He cannot be exposed to sunlight. He wears blue goggles and sound-dampening head phones. Plus, he has a disconcerting tendency to shoot blinding blue-white light from his eyes. The most normal thing about him is he reads Superman comics (the choice of literature is perhaps not coincidental). And he appears to be frail and in a downward spiral.
On the one hand, this is a chase film — almost a generic action picture with a sci-fi base and a goal that is probably as much of a mystery to Alton as anyone else. And, yes, it works on those grounds, but there’s so much more. Without going too deeply into it — not wanting to give away the film’s slowly (partly) revealed mystery — Midnight Special touches on the strangeness and bonding of parenthood and the “otherness” of children the nature of faith (and its possibly bogus quality) the idea that we are perhaps surrounded by mysteries we can barely imagine — and more. It addresses that moment where a child becomes his own person. It observes, and even inhabits, a world at once familiar to us, and yet one oddly detached in an almost clinical manner. In terms of ambition, this is a hard film to top — and therein lies the problem.
Midnight Special boldly goes to an ending it can neither quite pull off, nor one it should probably have attempted. It’s at once too literal for the rest of the film and the kind of thing that is inevitably a disappointment. I don’t want to say too much here, but it’s exactly why Kubrick knew what he was doing by eschewing literal-mindedness at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Does this miscalculation ruin the film? No — in part because the scenes that follow it embrace the enigmatic nature of the rest of the film — but it doesn’t help matters. Rated PG-13 for some violence and action.