For the first twenty minutes of Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ auspicious but disappointing sci-fi drama, I was intrigued. When it begins, two mysterious men have already abducted a Texas boy named Alton and hauled up in a motel room. Local news stations are broadcasting a statewide Amber Alert. The men have covered the windows with squares of cardboard, and their “captive”, quiet and calm, sits reading comic books by flashlight through thick blue shaded goggles. At dusk, they steal into the night, destination unknown. Meanwhile, FBI agents, investigating Alton for reasons of national security, raid a nearby ranch inhabited by a doomsday cult. The members claim Alton is their messiah and was stolen from the compound just days before Judgement Day. Already we wonder, who is this kid? What’s so special about him? Who are his kidnappers, and why does everyone want him so badly? Midnight Special opens with several compelling questions, but as it progresses, and begins to answer them, it only reveals just how uninspired it is.
In the supernatural kid genre, and its cousin, the science fiction Christ allegory, Midnight Special is lower rung. Its obstinately singleminded plot involves a road trip from Texas to some specific spot in Louisiana, where the magical child (Jaeden Lieberher) will be saved, or save the world… or something (the movie seems to be figuring that out along the way). He’s escorted by his father (Michael Shannon) and a family-friend (Joel Edgarton), an ex-cop with a knack for gunplay and fixing stuff. Eventually, they’re joined by the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), too. Shannon, mumbly and tight-lipped, plays one note of aggressive devotion; Edgarton is tough and moral, and nothing else; and Dunst does little besides looking worried. Their characters are written more like bland disciples than people. The kid has some vague abilities — he can shoot blinding light from his eyes, relay euphoric visions, and connect with technology telepathically like a psychic for radios and satellites. As with everything in Midnight Special, none of them pays off.
Nichols, who directed Take Shelter and Mud, likes a timbre of thick, incessant apprehension. It worked in Take Shelter, for instance, because that movie was built around the feeling of paranoia. As the characters in Midnight Special make their way across the South, pursued by authorities and zealots alike, it’s clear Nichols is spinning a different tale, a mystical fable about an otherworldly being who needs help avoiding would-be persecutors. What Nichols has made, in essence, is a really pretentiously foreboding E.T. The lone bright spot, certainly, is Adam Driver as Paul Sevier, an NSA agent investigating how Alton managed to intercept covert government messages. With his gangly droll quizzicality, Driver is like young Jeff Goldblum, and he makes Paul a stooge-cum-believer, someone who sees the boy’s spiritual luminance brighter through the toxic haze of surveillance and bureaucracy that he’s helped create. With Paul and Alton as the central pairing, Midnight Special might’ve been something a little more worthwhile.