Director Jeff Nichols is one of the current crop of directors—and they’re getting fewer and fewer, I might add—whose work I eagerly anticipate. Like many serious fans of cinema, I was enraptured by his second film, Take Shelter, and was also quite enthralled by his next outing, the 2013 effort Mud. And now we have the director’s current film, a take on the sci-fi genre entitled Midnight Special. It’s a film that I really wanted to like but one that ultimately left me wanting more than what it was able to provide.
Things start out with a bang during the picture’s opening section. There are television reports that a boy has been kidnapped. The narrative focuses in on a hotel room where an eight year old boy sits draped in a sheet, wearing goggles and reading a comic book, a setup that definitely piques viewer interest. Also in the room are two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who are obviously the boy’s captors. The action then shifts to a religious cult leader (Sam Shepherd) speaking to the authorities about the boy’s disappearance and being questioned in said kidnapping, a story thread that, strangely enough, simply vanishes after the film’s setup. We soon learn that the boy has special powers—he can read minds and pick up radio waves—and that Roy is exactly who we think he is, the boy’s father. Roy and his pal, Lucas are on their way to reunite Alton with his mother (Kirsten Dunst) but it’s best to stop there in the interest of not giving away the film’s denouement.
The problem with Midnight Special is it’s a film that sets itself up as a mystery but proves to be exactly what it looks like on the surface and never seems to reach what appears at first to be lofty goals. Nichols knows how to tease his audience and lead them in a way to assume that something bigger is going on. The trouble here is that the film doesn’t surprise, especially for anyone who’s been witness to director John Carpenter’s Starman or Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of which this film feels like an uncomfortable mishmash. The only real surprise is in the final scene and by surprise I mean that it doesn’t give closure but instead compounds the problem by offering a befuddling final shot that’s likely to leave viewers scratching their heads.
Midnight Special is the kind of film that I hate having to give a mixed review to and this is mainly due to my allegiance to the film’s director. Still, a critic must be honest and let’s just say that I’m looking more forward to Nichols’ next effort, Loving, more than I am revisiting Midnight Special anytime in the near future.