“I had an idea of two guys driving in a very fast car down these dark, southern roads in the middle of the night,” is what writer-director Jeff Nichols told io9 about the genesis of his new movie Midnight Special. “And I was wondering why they were moving at night? Why they had to move at night? That idea interested me.” Then he put a little boy in the back seat of this imaginary car and wondered why why he was there too. Who was he in relation to the two guys in the front seat? Was he the reason they were driving so fast?
From there, Nichols took his idea and ran with it, eventually outlining the entire history of the story, “from the birth of the adult characters and past the jaw-dropping ending.” He played around with the familiar themes and scenarios from his prior films Mud and Take Shelter, particularly the focus on children in the former and genre-bending examination of a steely determined father from a small, Midwestern community in the latter. He also subconsciously lifted ideas from very specific 70s films made by Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter.
However, even as Nichols built this new little cinematic universe in his mind and debated internally about when to drop each big new reveal in the story he remained committed to the inherent mystery of the idea which inspired him in the first place. As a result, regardless of where it ends up going Midnight Special instantly intrigues with an opening sequence which drops us into the middle of the story.
Hard-faced men in a hotel room hurriedly gather their things as a TV news report blasts out the details of an Amber Alert. We quickly note that one of the men in the room, Michael Shannon’s Roy, is the Amber Alert father accused of kidnapping his own son, Alton (St. Vincent‘s Jaeden Lieberher). The unidentified other man (Joel Edgerton) leads them to an old muscle car outside the hotel room, and they plunge deep into the Texas night, using night vision goggles to drive without any headlights and a police radio scanner to further avoid detection. Even the flashlight Alton was using to read his comic books in the backseat has to be turned off.
But why exactly did Roy kidnap Alton? Who’s the other guy in the car with them? Why are they only moving at night? Why is Alton wearing goggles?
And that’s when the Midnight Special title card flashes in large print over the image of the old car mysteriously blazing its way into uncertain darkness.
Are you hooked yet? Don’t you want to know where exactly the guy who made Mud and Take Shelter is taking this? Do you trust that the talents of Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton and the kid from St. Vincent will make for an compelling trio? Would it help if I told you that eventually Adam Driver shows up (and he doesn’t kill Han Solo again, so that’s good)?
The reason I am being so coy is because the first review I read of Midnight Special was Variety‘s and it warned, “The less audiences know going in, the better.” So I immediately stopped reading that review, and I only ever watched a teaser trailer.
Now that I’ve seen Midnight Special I recognize the truth in their warning. Similar to 10 Cloverfield Lane, this is a movie best experienced in an unspoiled state. However, also similar to 10 Cloverfield Lane it turns out to be a deeply fascinating and expertly made journey to a destination which may not have been completely worth it. That isn’t to say that it wildly switches genre in its last act, but instead that its ambitions are perhaps somewhat outsized to its abilities, despite the uniformly solid performances from all involved actors, a grouping that also eventually includes Kirsten Dunst.
As IndieWire put it, “The bigger the questions you ask, the less likely it is you can answer them in any satisfying, definitive way, and the human, existential, metaphysical questions that Midnight Special poses, if you care to look for them, are enormous.” Focus less on the existential and metaphysical, though and more on the central relationship between Roy and Alton, father and son. Through that prism you will see Nichols’ true goal: to use genre to present a metaphor for his own insecurities as a new dad. He told io9, “It seems like you’re on this journey as a father and you just don’t know where your child is going. You don’t know if they’re going to make it….And that felt oddly in line with the scifi chase movie. It felt like an opportunity to do what I really love to do, which is blend genre elements with really intense, kind of personal feelings.”
I am so tempted to write more. To describe how masterfully Nichols has nailed the aesthetic of the American Midwest and Deep South. To praise the maturity of Nichols’ script by highlighting one prolonged moment with a supporting character which turns them into an actual understandable human being when they could have so easily been a simple villain. To commend Joel Edgerton’s performance as the one member in the story who has no real skin in the game. To debate how well the ending actually works, and wonder if there is more they could have done with this premise and the related reveals. Instead, I will end here because until you have seen it the less said about Midnight Special the better. The RottenTomatoes Consensus just about covers it:
82% – “Midnight Special’s intriguing mysteries may not resolve themselves to every viewer’s liking, but the journey is ambitious, entertaining, and terrifically acted.”