You wouldn’t be wrong if you mistook Midnight Special for a peer to the early film works of Steven Spielberg or akin to something like John Carpenter’s Starman. It’s a film that wears its inspirations close to its heart without becoming a pastiche like Super 8. The shot of a 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle speeding across the wilderness of the Gulf is intended to evoke the sense of the familiar, like a movie you would come across on a Saturday afternoon that you remember from your childhood.
Midnight Special is the story of Alton, an eight year old boy, who is held up as a messiah figure by a religious cult in Texas. He’s kidnapped by his father (Michael Shannon) and a family friend (Joel Edgerton). They embark on a multi-state race against the religious cult and the U.S. government, both of whom have ideas about what Alton is and what he knows. The secret of Alton is something that will change the world’s understanding of the universe, but he had to reach a location in the Florida Everglades by a certain date or his purpose will remain a mystery.
There is very little modern technology present in the film which adds to its timeless feel. Alton reads early 1980s DC Comics during the road trip. A bank of payphones play an important role in bringing a character into the fold. This is a film that, while obvious not in the 1980s, makes you question that face throughout. Adam Driver, as an NSA analyst, comes across as the role Richard Dreyfus would have played had this been made thirty plus years ago. A moment near the end of the film involving a military roadblock of an important access road immediately rang familiar in my head as something out of Close Encounters.
It’s very obvious Nichols is a fan of that and Spielberg’s earlier films. But where the two men split is in the way they portray wonder. Spielberg has his famous slow push in on the awestruck face of a character. Nichols plays things very subtle, which is not always a positive. While, we never feel pushed into sentimentality about the characters there is a sense of distance with them. Withholding a more profound connection with the characters can be frustrating, but in other ways Nichols’ creating an absence of details can add to the mystery. Early on, Alton’s father stands before a man with a gun drawn. The man is in a chair pleading for himself. The scene ends without a resolution. Halfway through the film we learn the man is still alive and never shot. The way it is played works as a surprise and deepening of the mystery that draws us in further.
Nichols is a director intrigued with messiah figures. In Take Shelter (2012) he presents us with a potentially schizophrenic visionary, making us question the reality of the main character’s point of view. He subverts our expectations in the finale of that film and leaves us asking lots of questions. Midnight Special feels more straightforward. We are never meant to question the unearthly power of Alton and see evidence of it from early in the film. This messiah is a tragic figure and I started to view the film through the lens of a story about parents dealing with the death and loss of their child. In the end, our characters are left changed, their faith reshaped. We never truly learn the details around Alton and we are in the survivors’ shoes. Left to wonder about the purpose of this world we inhabit.