Jeff Nichols’ (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) fourth feature-length film, Midnight Special, could have been easily retitled “The Young Messiah Chronicles,” “The Adventures of the Young Messiah,” or “The Young Messiah and the Journey to Wonderland” (the sequel title already comes pre-made, “The Young Messiah and the Wizard of Wonderland”). It’s yet another “Chosen One” narrative, though in this case, the Young Messiah (not to be confused with the faith-based film quietly released into theaters a few weeks ago) is a literal child. He might have superpowers and enjoy reading superhero comic books (what super-powered child doesn’t?), but he’s also at mercy of the adults who claim to have his best interests in mind. For an eschatological cult, there’s little, if any doubt, of the boy’s status as their personal savior, destined, not by word or even deed, but by his presence, to raise them up to a higher plane of existence (heaven) on an appointed day and time.
Opening in media res, Midnight Special’s first scene sets the stage for Nichols’ narrative approach, carefully – some might argue too carefully – doling out bits of exposition as Roy (Michael Shannon), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and the paranormally gifted Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent) flee through the backroads, backwoods, and byways of Texas and Louisiana. They leave a motel room in the predawn hours hoping to evade notice, but it doesn’t. Almost immediately, they cross paths with a suspicious state trooper; it almost ends tragically. It’s clear the two men, especially Roy, will do anything to evade capture, up to and possibly including murder. Given Shannon’s well-earned reputation as Mr. Intensity, it’s remarkably easy to buy into Roy’s dangerously obsessive, violent behavior, the result (or possibly the cause) of his promise to keep Alton not only alive, but away from the church (here more a Christianity-inspired religious cult) and the U.S. government (represented here by a confluence of the military, the FBI, and the NSA).
As Roy, Lucas, and Alton drive (and drive), resting during the day, in part to go unnoticed, but also to protect a gradually weakening Alton whose powers, whatever their origin, involve beams of blue, beatific light emanating from his eyes and the occasional, localized earthquake, Midnight Special expands in concentric circles, initially taking in the Ranch, a religious cult headed by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) and Alton’s adopted father. The cult sees Alton as a literal messiah figure, a savior who, on the appointed hour and day (March 6th), will lift up the true believers into the equivalent of heaven. Moments after Calvin counsels two men, figurative doubles for Roy and Lucas, on the necessity of retrieving Alton before the appointed day, the FBI swoops in, ushering the men, women, and children of the Ranch into buses for interrogation about Alton. An inexperienced NSA officer, Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), runs point for the government’s pursuit of Alton. Not surprisingly, the U.S. sees Alton as a potential threat, not a savior, but Sevier – refreshing depicted not as a villain, but simply a truth-seeker (he’s also the audience stand-in) – begins to suspect otherwise.
Midnight Special expands even further to take in Roy’s estranged wife and Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who joins them on the journey. As the only woman in a major role (often the only woman in Midnight Special at all), Sarah serves as a reassuring, albeit traditional, maternal presence, defined wholly by her relationship to Alton and Roy. It’s one of Midnight Special’s most glaring weaknesses, but it’s not the film’s biggest problem, a third act filled with too many over-familiar ideas, ideas bordering on cliché, and a climax that lacks the punch and poignancy, not to mention the wonder and awe Nichols wants to impart to audiences, wonder and awe typically associated with the early phase of Spielberg’s career, especially (and specifically Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial), with added references to John Carpenter’s Starman and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (not coincidentally, Shyamalan was once heralded as Spielberg’s successor).
Ultimately, Nichols the screenwriter fails Nichols the director. For all of his technical proficiency, a proficiency that bodes well for directing mainstream films in Hollywood (assuming his ambitions lie in that direction, of course), Nichols fails to elevate Midnight Special beyond a seemingly endless series of references, quotes, and citations to Spielberg’s early work. Shots and scenes echo with narrative and visual cues, primarily from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, everything from government conspiracy to the ubiquitous helicopters that constantly circle ahead, to the coordinates of the super-special meeting place where Alton’s destined to go, to Alton’s weakening condition (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial), to the literal uplift of the climax, and on and on (Starman also shares many of the same plot points and emotional beats). By the final moments of Dave Wingo’s score, it becomes just as clear that Nichols took the “it’s the journey, not the destination” line to heart. More often than not where fictional narratives are concerned, it’s both.