Midnight Special is a lot of things.
It is a meditation on faith. It is a road movie. It is an indie superhero movie. It is a Spielbergian science-fiction adventure. It is a coming of age tale. It is a film fundamentally about awe and wonder. It is a spectacle that nevertheless remains firmly rooted in the ground even as it looks upwards. It is a tribute to the “lay lines” that serve to tie the United States together, from the dark country roads to the shady motels. Midnight Special is a lot of things, and it is very good at being all those things.
However, Midnight Special is fundamentally a movie about parenting. It is a movie about the unquestioning hope that a parent might be responsible for something that is ultimately more than they were.
Midnight Special belongs in any number of rich storytelling traditions, most of them anchored in pulp. We are introduced to young Alton sitting in the backseat of a beaten up old car. As Roy and Lucas sit sternly (and mostly quietly) in the front seat, Alton sits in the backseat with a torch reading comic books. There are issues of Superman and issues of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, both hinting at influences on this story of a strange little boy who seems to be transforming into something other… perhaps even something more.
The obvious point of reference for Midnight Special is the superhero genre, focusing as the story does on a young child who is both gifted and cursed by strange abilities. However, the film is much more than that. It ties the imagery and iconography of the superhero genre back to a richer storytelling vein. It is in many ways an extended chase film, as Roy and Lucas struggle to protect Alton from the various parties who have taken an interest in the young boy with the remarkable abilities.
If Midnight Special borrows some of the language of the superhero genre, it consciously shifts the emphasis. Alton is a major part of Midnight Special, with a very clear character arc and his own agency within the narrative. However, Midnight Special is not so much a story about a boy undergoing a transformation. It is often the story of those who might be left behind. If the superhero genre is populated with coming of age stories about young people developing into who they were meant to be, Midnight Special examines that from the perspective of the parents.
However, Midnight Special also works hard to integrate the superhero genre within its larger cultural context, at least as far as major Americian motion pictures are concerned. Midnight Special is as much a spiritual successor to classic films like Starman or E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind as it is a first cousin to something like Chronicle. The superhero does not hold a monopoly upon stories of transcendence and transformation in American cinema.
As that list might suggest, Steven Spielberg is an obvious influence on Midnight Special, particularly in the emphasis that writer Jeff Nichols puts on the dysfunctional family at the heart of the story. Indeed, the climax even offers a wry twist on a classic Spielbergian trope. Roy is a father who has reconnected with his son, even as he is unsure of what exactly his son is becoming. This brings them into contact with Sarah, the boy’s mother. “It’s a shame,” Lucas reflects at one point. “You would have made a nice family.”
Midnight Special benefits from some fantastic casting. Nichols has assembled some great performers, with Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, Joel Edgerton and Paul Sparks helping to flesh out characters who might otherwise have felt one-note or functional. Given how economical Nichols is with dialogue, it is to the credit of the cast that all the characters feel fleshed out and developed. It also allows Nichols to focus on the more dynamic aspects of the plot, with Midnight Special playing as something of a chase movie.
However, it is Michael Shannon who anchors the film. Shannon works very well with Jaeden Lieberher, his young co-star. Shannon plays Roy as a father whose devotion to his son is unquestioning. Roy might not understand the finer details of what is happening, but he wholeheartedly believes that Alton is part of something much larger. Shannon has a gift for bringing fanaticism to live, and Nichols script embraces the character’s devotion. However, Shannon tempers Roy’s faith with clear love and affection. The result is a sensational central performance.
Midnight Special is a movie about what it means to be parent. It is a film about the role that parents play in helping their children to find their way in the world. Roy and Sarah are nothing special of themselves. They are loving parents who are committed to Alton, but the film repeatedly suggests that Alton is in the process of growing beyond them. Midnight Special is a film about the debt that parents owe to their children, to help guide them and protect them on the journey towards becoming who they were meant to be. In doing so, parents are enriched themselves.
This lends Midnight Special an incredibly poignancy and effectiveness. It anchors the film in something very easy to understand, something with which most viewers can relate. Amid the spectacle and the scale, Midnight Special never lets the relationship between Roy and Alton drift out of focus. As such, Nichols is able to elevate what is essentially a fairly conventional genre plot into something with a lot more depth and feeling. This is particularly true during the film’s final act.
Nichols takes his time peeling back the layers of Midnight Special. The first act of the film is packed with questions, while answers are somewhat harder to come by. Nichols does not ladle out expository dialogue. In fact, fairly important background character beats and dynamics are reference fleetingly rather than heavy-handedly. The result is a film that feels far more invested in its characters than its mythology, far more engaged with Roy and Alton than in articulating the finer mechanics of its world-building.
The result is a movie that feels lean and effective. As befits what is essentially a road movie, Midnight Special moves quickly and cleanly. In some respects, Midnight Special plays as a tribute to a certain trashy side of American folklore, with Nichols revelling in dark country roads and motel bedrooms where the windows are blocked over with cardboard boxes. Midnight Special is very much a tribute that sense of the uncharted and unknown America, one that does not seem to be comprised of cities or towns, but fields and swamps and roads.
Early in the film, a character asks Roy what he knows about “lay lines”, the mythological bands of energy that criss-cross the globe. Midnight Special seems to suggest that hady dirt roads that lie off the beaten bath serve as the lay lines for a contemporary American mythology. Light is a major recurring element of Midnight Special, often symbolically tied with Alton’s transformation. However, the movie’s opening sequence revels in the image of a dark rural highway that seems to stretch forever, our heroes moving through it almost unseen.
Midnight Special is a beautifully-crafted piece of work, one put together with a great deal of economy and even more care. It is finely tailored and skilfully constructed. It might build upon rich pulp traditions, but it distils most of those into a surprisingly sweet meditation on what it means to be a parent in a world that can seem hostile.