Midnight Special, the latest film from directorial wunderkind Jeff Nichols, follows on the heels of critical hits like the outright masterpiece Take Shelter and the slightly less excellent Mud. It's a film that's comes loaded with expectations. That it fails to meet them at just about every turn isn't necessarily as damning a phrase given just what a high bar the filmmaker is being forced to meet. But in total, Midnight Special is like that guy you know that's painfully out of shape, but thinks it's a good idea to occasionally sprint when he's running his mile. Things look great for the couple of minutes he's able to run like Barry Allen, and then all of a sudden the harsh truth sets in and he's back at a snails pace, huffing and puffing.
Midnight Special is set in rural Texas, where Roy (Michael Shannon) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with glowing eyes and immense power, flee a religious cult run by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd). After a manhunt is issued for Roy, they go on the run along with Roy's childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and eventually, Alton's mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Dodging both the authorities and Meyer's hired muscle, these four aim to bring Alton to an unspecified location, where he'll play a major role in what they believe will be a prophetic and earth-changing event.
One of the big draws of Nichols' films is how original they come across to the viewer. His rural exercises in morality and masculinity often feel like a cinematic warm embrace, particularly with its focus on loving, if conflicted, paternal figures and each film he's produced up to this point has stood as very much within a style that is unique to this very talented filmmaker. The issue at hand with Midnight Special is that while it contains some essaying of elements that have worked in his past films, the whole endeavor feels much more reserved and isolated in a way that's unexpected.
Perhaps the problem lies in just how much it's attempting to be a throw-back to the family oriented sci-fi spectacles of Carpenter and Spielberg (think: Starman, E.T.. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). In a way very similar to Super 8, this is an example of another filmmaker attempting to graft his style onto the 80's family sci-fi template. It's less execrable than that, but not by a lot. Where Abrams' film was pitched right to the summer blockbuster crowd, Nichols' centers his aim more towards an slightly more art-house experience, but without the kind of script needed to provoke much of anything beyond tedium and narrative inertia. It's the kind of high concept/low stakes film that with the right pieces in place, could make for a new sci-fi classic, that it misses the mark so widely only increases dissatisfaction.
While performances across the board are solid, the players themselves are given little to do except look worryingly at this special child and look over their shoulders and outside windows. There a few moments that do eventually pack a punch, but if you've seen any of the marketing deluge, much of those sequences you will already have experienced. That's not to say they aren't worth seeking out on the big screen, but the connective tissue provides little momentum in establishing those moments and the ever-creeping feeling of being a chore starts to set in rather quickly. Shannon performs nicely, Edgerton has a fun line or two, the scenes are captured in a rather pretty way, but it never feels like it's in service to anything but an ideal of something else. And when I sit down to see a Nichols movie, that's a feeling that's foreign to me. The entire experience left me basically empty and not caring one wit.
This is the worst film of Jeff Nichols' career. There's good craft to display, and that may be enough to drive you to the cinema, but adjust your expectations accordingly. You're in for a slow ride.