MIDNIGHT SPECIAL IS an unsettling film. It isn’t that something specifically unsettling is happening––much of the film takes place in various cars––it’s more that while watching the film you feel a constant sense of unease, as though something bad is about to happen. The opening shot of the film is of a piece of duct tape laid across a hole in the wall. It calls to mind things unknown or covered up or otherwise hidden from view, and it’s the uncertainty that those things bring about that pervades the film.
Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on the run. It’s what they have with them that their pursuers want: Roy’s son, eight-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who at the start of the film is wearing a pair of goggles and a set of headphones and is sitting under a sheet. The goggles make young Alton look quite inhuman, which is appropriate, really, because there’s something very unusual about him. Exactly what that is is hard to say with any precision; all we can determine is that he has special powers, but neither Roy nor Lucas can articulate what they are. Alton’s powers are no secret. He is the central figure of worship for a cult, whose members in place of ‘amen’ recite a string of numbers that Alton once said aloud. They want Alton back, and their high priest Calvin Meyer (Sam Shephard) has dispatched Doak (Bill Camp) to get him. The second group hunting Alton are, of course, agents of the U.S. Government, led by FBI Agent Miller (Paul Sparks) and including geeky NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).
Part of the reason that Midnight Special is so disquieting is the fact that no one can explain what Alton can do, nor why. Vague details of his extraordinary abilities trickle out slowly in the frightened and awestruck dialogue of multiple characters.
Part of the reason that Midnight Special is so disquieting is the fact that no one can explain what Alton can do, nor why. Vague details of his extraordinary abilities trickle out slowly in the frightened and awestruck dialogue of multiple characters. What is more revealing are the emotions painted across the faces of Lucas and Roy, neither of whom can conceal their confusion and wonder. In two superb central performances, both Edgerton and Shannon manage to convey clearly and without speaking the belief that they are woefully under-equipped for the situation in which they find themselves, and yet, equally, believe they must continue on the course they’ve chosen, even if the task at hand seems impossible. When Roy and Lucas speak about Alton, they objectify him with their language, and it underscores the fact that Alton is, in some way, “other”.
A minimalist, electronic score by David Wingo intensifies this atmosphere of gravity and uneasiness; so too does the blackness of the night in which the three are forced to travel. For a film in which the main characters are constantly being chased, Midnight Special moves slowly: the characters speak very little during the first act, and few details are divulged. Writer and-director Jeff Nichols paces the film very well. That we know little is frustrating but also a source of the tension that is constant for the better part of the film.
Michael Shannon’s hard-to-read features seem to communicate a wealth of conflicting emotions, and when he contorts his often-expressionless face into a smile or a frown or a look of alarm, the impression is far more powerful than if it were done by a more animated actor.
The casting of Michael Shannon is something of a masterstroke. He’s at once an awkward an intimidating presence more familiar playing the villain than a desperate father, but in Midnight Special his hard-to-read features seem to communicate a wealth of conflicting emotions, and when he contorts his often-expressionless face into a smile or a frown or a look of alarm, the impression is far more powerful than if it were done by a more animated actor. Joel Edgerton is almost as captivating as a state trooper who personifies the tough and humble character of the rural Texan. And both Shannon and Edgerton’s performances are supported by an exceptionally mature and largely physical performance by Jaeden Lieberher.
The main fault of Midnight Special is that the tension rarely rises. Instead, it is sustained throughout the film and then explodes into a climax which, though cathartic, might have come half an hour earlier or half an hour later. But that said, the film is incredibly gripping throughout. It’s dark and heavy and almost completely lacking in humour but it has an emotional depth and thoughtfulness too often missing from films of the same genre, and carried by a wealth of excellent performances.