“Midnight Special,” directed by Jeff Nichols, is an homage to the fleeting American South, accomplished by incorporating imagery such as roadside motels, empty back country roads and small town life, similar to that depicted in films such as “Close Encounters,” “E.T.” and “Starman.” Nichols’ sci-fi drama follows enigmatic young boy Alton on the run with his father Roy and their friend Lucas. Who are they fleeing from? The combined forces of the FBI, NSA, religious fanatics and the public. What’s their endgame? Getting Alton to a specific location in Florida. Alton believes he is from the “unseen world,” a place which mirrors our own.
Throughout the film, Nichols plays heavily with nostalgia. This thematic tool is ripely displayed in “Midnight Special.” Similarly, there are strong sci-fi and quasi-religious elements at play throughout “Midnight Special” as well; the film is by no means strictly a science fiction or religious film. Due to Nichols’ detailed and strict film outlines, his narrative structure flows quickly. Nichols balances this with set pieces such as the raid on The Ranch by the FBI, Roy & Lucas’ killing of the state trooper, an act that wears on Lucas’ psyche, and the climactic ending. The film is sparse in dialogue, but its attention to the characters and their motives is clear throughout. I never felt like I was struggling to follow the established motives.
I found “Midnight Special” through one of Nichols’ earlier films, “Mud.” Both films share similar plot devices. This film, like Mud, sees Nichol’s playing heavy in genre elements. With “Midnight Special,” and though it has an amalgam of themes from other genres, it is, at its heart, a drama. Nichols stated that the film’s screenplay was written around the time he became a father. The relationship between Alton, played by Jaeden Martell, and Roy, played by Michael Shannon, is heartfelt and simple. Seeing Roy work to protect Alton and realize the enormity of his son is both endearing and sad. There are moments when they try to understand one another and others when it’s a fight to survive. The film leaves a lot up in the air in its climax. Nichols is ambivalent about endings, and the ending of this film, if you can call it that, is quite interesting, although its ending leaves much to the imagination.
At times, it feels like too much is trying to be told in “Midnight Special,” and the story gets bogged down because of it. Characters, such as the stoic leader of the religious cult worshipping Alton, played by Sam Shepard, are introduced and then forgotten soon after. The religious allegories in the film are interesting; however, they don’t necessarily generate anything new in their depictions.
Nichols is an intriguing filmmaker; some fans would even attribute the term “auteur” to his work. Regardless, “Midnight Special” is a depiction of the unconditional nature of parental love with nods to Jesus, Superman and the nostalgia of ’70s and ’80s sci-fi films.