Midnight Special

 

            Writer and Director Jeff Nichols puts a lot of dots out there, and invites the viewers to connect the dots.  Some viewers don't enjoy working that hard, and others don't like to be kept guessing about what's happening in the movie.  So “Midnight Special” isn't for everyone.  But its spare style and meandering story line will find a few fans who enjoy an unsual visual experience.

            Roy (Michael Shannon) is a Dad who's watching the news on television about how police are looking for a missing boy, and the “person of interest” picture on the screen is him.  Yes, they're saying he's kidnapped his own son, though he certainly doesn't appear to be the abusive or criminal type.  He's shown gently talking to the boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who seems completely comfortable being with his Dad, though a bit quiet and waifish.  He doesn't seem to have much energy, and he keeps to himself, mostly, reading comic books and wearing blue goggles.  Roy has a friend with him, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), whom we later learn was recruited for this adventure on the fly; he hadn't heard from his friend Roy in a long while until he suddenly showed up at the door asking for help.  It seems that Roy had been at a “ranch,” a kind of cult commune, where apparently the boy has been for a couple of years.

            Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the charismatic leader at “The Ranch,” calmly instructs a subordinate to find the boy at any cost, as his own mission from The Lord.  Then Meyer just as calmly receives the FBI intrusion into one of their meetings, where all the adherents are rounded up for questioning because they, too, want to know about the boy with the special powers.

            At this point we're not exactly sure what the powers are, but some kind of light is generated from his eyes, and anybody who's been in that field of vision at the time claims some kind of etherreal experience that the coldly pragmatic FBI agents find difficult to define.

            Roy, meanwhile, is making his way with Lucas and Alton to see Alton's Mom, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who's apparently estranged from Roy, but is still very interested in seeing her son.  We're not told how the boy came upon his “special powers,” nor what kind of relationship Roy and Sarah used to have.  We only know that they are trying to get Alton to some kind of map co-ordinate, where, he says, he needs to go. 

            So these strange fugitives try to make their way across the country by staying at cheap motels, paying cash, and even, when necessary, driving without lights using night-vision goggles.  But some weird things happen along the way, like a bunch of exploding lights at a gas station, which they barely escape.  And now NSA is involved, in the form of agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), who turns out to be the only government official Alton will agree to speak to, and then only privately.

            So who is Alton, exactly, and why does he need to be in a certain remote field outside Tallahassee at a specific time?  And why is everyone after him?  And how is it that he is able to control certain things electronically with a kind of mental telepathy?  What is going on here?

            That's what the viewers will be asking themselves throughout “Midnight Special.”  For some, the elongated tease won't be worth the time invested in playing “Guess What I'm Thinking.” For others, it will be a long chase sequence followed by an unexpected ending, which may be just enough to accept the connect-the-dots-yourself game on its own terms.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association