The comparisons that have been made of Jeff Nichols’s new Midnight Special to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind are many, and they’re also true. But as we quickly learn during an interrogation scene, “this is something different.” The movie begins as a high-octane thriller, fueling the getaway car of a kidnapping in progress. Naturally, these are no ordinary kidnappers (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) – they’re tinged with morality. Their motives are not financial, but spiritual, calling to the higher power of their precious cargo, a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Liberher). Alton, who is more a passenger than a victim, has a growing mystique, for which members of different factions are willing to take lives and risk their own.
The pace softens as the movie progresses, and so do its characters. Rather than abandoning his boy for a vision, like Roy Neary from Close Encounters, Shannon (also named Roy) uses Alton to complete his. But it’s Edgerton, in his best performance to date, who displays more paternal instincts. Edgerton cares for the ailing child in times of need, while Shannon drives him to realize his prophecy. The movie adopts pieces of different genres, but Alton’s role at the center of the story is a constant. He brings the other characters together – uniting families, zealots, and government agencies. NSA Agent Sevier (Adam Driver) arrives as that government representative in the race to recapture the young boy. Driver is tasked with solving the film’s most complex problems, but Alton’s reach is so great that even the smartest man in the room is tempted by his secrets.
One of Nichols’s strengths as a writer and director is that he allows the audience to complete the film. He is willing to omit an action sequence or a line of clichéd dialogue to produce a greater effect. Though some audiences may find that Nichols has gone too far, leaving out too much, mostly in his narrative. One may feel that he has kidnapped us and taken us for a ride, with no clear destination. During their ride, Alton is seen reading comics in the backseat with only a flashlight to guide the way. This is quickly denounced by his father, suggesting that Alton “needs to know what’s real.” Nichols is interested in what is real, but only as it applies to human emotion and connection. And sometimes we must look to beings from other worlds to learn about those connections – to embrace a sense of euphoria, rather than search for an explanation.