Jeff Nichols Misses Mark With Clumsy "Midnight Special"

The opening minutes of Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” are rife with the potential to haunt moviegoers, full of muted but evocative imagery that points to a southern-fried sci-fi classic in the making. Conversely, the closing minutes of “Midnight Special” should haunt Jeff Nichols, capping off a slow-burn disappointment that implodes as it crosses the finish line.

At the film’s outset we’re introduced to Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher, “St. Vincent”), a mousey Texan boy forever in blue swim goggles. As the 8 year-old sits draped in motel bed sheets holding a flashlight to a Superman comic, a televised Amber Alert informs us of his abduction. Two armed men have taken him from an expansive ranch called home by a religious cult, leading to a statewide manhunt.

The reasons for Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) taking the boy are initially unclear. Their devotion isn’t.

Soon after their exodus from the motel, they shoot a cop and leave him for dead, barreling through the night in their gray Chevelle with Alton in the backseat. All the while, the FBI interviews the leader of the aforementioned cult (Sam Shepard) looking for answers. If only there weren’t any.

The setup is fascinating, but the more we learn about Alton and his captors, the less interesting their story becomes. At first it’s because Nichols hews a little too closely to the “child with special powers” blueprint drawn by so many past films and television shows. (The fourth-ever episode of “The X-Files” covers eerily similar territory.) Alton has visions, picks up radio waves in his head, and emits white-hot beams of light from his eyes.

But more problematic than the narrative’s familiarity is that almost every element of it is exactly as it seems. Roy turns out to be Alton’s biological father, rescuing his gifted son so he can bring him to a set of coordinates as to avoid a potentially apocalyptic event. No one ever questions the mission or its mastermind, Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), an excommunicated cult member.

Especially not Lucas, a character intended as the audience’s proxy. Lucas is a state trooper and long-lost friend to Roy, only days removed from a normal existence. As a layman dropped into the middle a science fiction movie, thrown into the mix with unreal, terrifying happenings all around him, he ought to have some struggle with disbelief. Instead, he buys in wholeheartedly, hardly batting an eye when Alton singlehandedly downs a satellite.

Adam Driver’s character, scientist Paul Sevier, is equally misapplied. Sevier’s kind curiosity and warm feelings toward Alton could have been left entirely on the cutting room floor and yielded the same exact movie. When Alton is intercepted by two cult thugs and quickly seized by the FBI, Sevier returns the boy to his parents as if nothing ever happened. It’s a bizarrely circular morsel of storytelling, one that highlights the cracks in Nichols’ screenplay.

Those cracks become chasms when the finale comes around, turning from intimate character piece to overblown FX bonanza in a matter of seconds. That it calls to mind Disney’s dismal “Tomorrowland” is bad. That it undercuts much of what came before is worse. Stranded somewhere between truth and allegory, the CGI-heavy climax is both visually and thematically unwieldy. It doesn’t satisfy, but Nichols’ bevy of strange scripting choices suggests that maybe it wasn’t meant to satisfy – only to conclude.

If the film weren’t so beautifully photographed and performed (Shannon is spectacular, as always), so measured in its pacing, it might have ended up the antithesis to the filmmaker’s last film, the exquisite Matthew McConaughey drama “Mud.” But there are good things here, some wonderful individual pieces that never come together in any significant way.

Like run-of-the-mill ambient music, “Midnight Special” is moody and atmospheric but short on so many of the qualities that users hold dear. In this case: action, clarity, energy, and resolution. For such a gifted filmmaker, it’s enough to add up to a pretty heavy disappointment.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: March 18, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and action)