Midnight Special tells the story of Roy (Michael Shannon) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) as they make a mad dash to a mysterious location. Alton has strange powers (His eyes glow and he can pick up radio stations and quote them verbatim) and needs to get to a certain set of coordinates with little reason other than Roy’s faith that his son must be there. Assisted by Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and later Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), the father and son must avoid the government and a cult that worships Alton’s powers.
Midnight Special has a quietly confident and deliberate pace that ratchets up the mystery surrounding Alton’s journey. Character actions, carefully framed and timed shots, and even the soundtrack give us a mystery to unravel. While that mystery pays off in general, the movie doesn’t quite get you to that sweet spot of total emotional and narrative satisfaction.
*MINOR SPOILER AHEAD*
There is a moment early in the film where Lucas confronts Roy over a violent incident. Lucas is forced to shoot a State Trooper after a shouting and armed Roy exacerbates the issue. The movie refuses to give us an immediate reason for this confrontation. Is it because Lucas is an alpha male? Is Roy really a fanatic?
It pays off later in a cool, satisfying way. When Sarah asks what Lucas did before helping Roy and Alton, his reply is simple: A State Trooper.
*END MINOR SPOILER*
Maybe it’s just me, being a story junkie, but I really loved that touch. It also shows what this film is: A mystery to be unraveled by a patient viewer. The movie refuses to give easy answers, frustratingly so in some cases, but it is still great to watch. Visual storytelling is big in the movie. When Sarah is first introduced, we see her in medium close up, her face furrowed with worry as she stares off anxiously. The camera holds on her until she turns at Roy, Alton and Luke arriving. Almost immediately, we know she is a concerned mother without saying a word.
The performances are a strength, especially Michael Shannon. He carries an intensity that is often intimidating whenever he feels his son’s journey is ever threatened. Roy is as a man with a troubled life capable of a dangerous rage. But Shannon’s Roy is also capable of a gruff tenderness with Alton. His scenes with the boy are somewhat awkward, but genuinely soulful, and I was genuinely touched by their interactions.
Another stand out is Adam Driver as Sevier, an NSA analyst on our heroes’ trail. Unlike most of the other government agents after Roy and Alton, Driver’s Sevier is genuinely curious about the boy’s “powers.” While the government sees Alton purely as a threat (He intercepts government transmissions), Sevier brings a wide-eyed fascination…he is us. Driver is very likable in the role, providing the majority of the humor.
Joel Edgerton is also very good as an audience surrogate He is a Regular Joe who struggles to understand the mysteries around Alton, but also recognizes that the boy is special and needs to be protected. He also comes off more likeable than Roy at some points, worrying about Alton’s health.
While Kirsten Dunst is fine as Sarah, there was nothing particularly special about her performance. And Sam Shepard as the cult’s leader Calvin Meyer appears in only one scene. Cult member Doak (Bill Camp) is thrust into a sort of Crusade in pursuit of Alton and becomes the real antagonist. His blind fanaticism is truly scary.
The soundtrack by David Wingo is amazing. At the start, it is mysterious and menacing. As the mystery of the movie begins to unravel, the soundtrack changes, but not in a jarring way.
And while the majority of the movie is full of satisfying moments, it still lacked something. For me, a movie’s great moments don’t make for an overall great narrative. While I praise the movie’s deliberately paced payoffs, there were some things that felt off. Sarah is introduced too late for her character to have much of an impact and the movie’s conclusion suffers slightly because of it. And that mystery is so pervasive, the movie can’t seem to completely solve it. There is very little explanation given to the ending, but to elaborate more would completely spoil the film.
While the movie has minor problems, it is still worth watching. If you are a film geek who loves a good sci fi mystery, this is a great movie to check out.
SCORE: 7 OUT OF 10