It begins in a motel room, a cinematic shorthand that tells you things aren’t quite right for the characters staying there. If they’re in a motel, then they’re on the run, or hiding out, or escaping something. This is true for father Roy (Michael Shannon,) preteen son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher,) and close friend-slash-hired muscle Lucas (Joel Edgerton.) Much of the opening hour of Midnight Special is hushed, played as these characters furtively aim to keep one step ahead of the law—personified by Adam Driver’s idealistic FBI scientist—and the evangelical quasi-cult from which Roy and Alton recently sprung. Sam Shepard is on hand in the early scenes as the cult’s leader, to provide portentous “Y’all have no clue who you’re dealing with”-type lines, the sort of exposition on which the viewer subsists for Midnight Special’s front half. The film is cryptic, but in a manner that’s familiar to moviegoers: the limited-dialogue chase sequences and gradual reveal of a child’s “special” nature are well worn devices, and most have the tools required to sift through their obfuscations. Said familiar backdrops are not without their dramatic charge, and are merely the means, not the end, of the film’s creative direction. Writer/director Jeff Nichols has stated that the incubating point for Midnight Special was the image of an old car shining its headlights down a dark rural highway in pitch black light. This evocative image is prominent early on, and repeats in the film. For much of their push east from Texas to Florida, Roy, Alton, and Lucas move from darkness to darkness, from blacked out motel room to lonely country drive.
Let no one say that the experience of watching this film—or any other of Nichols’s modestly-played Southern dramas (Take Shelter, Mud)—is one that lacks visual interest. The sets are lovingly designed to feature technology and décor that would not be out of place in the Close Encounters-era sci-fi that this recalls (tube televisions abound, among pastel hotel rooms,) though I maintain this is a triumph of Nichols’s working-class naturalism more than anything else (there is at least one town within fifty miles of where you grew up—for me it’s Pawtucket, RI—that still exists in a bubble of 1971.) By the end of the first scene, the cracks are evident within the facades of these old tropes anyway. The opening shot of the film is the motel room door’s peephole, covered in black duct tape. The windows are covered in cardboard, too, in what appears to be another exemplar of unusual paranoia. But as the narrative kicks into motion and Roy, Alton, and Lucas are forced to move out of the hotel, the film parses out more details which both justify their odd behavior and prompt further questions. What do we make of Alton’s goggles and earmuffs, or the strange behavior he and his father have internalized? They seem to be more cautious than most other criminals, even afraid of daylight. We learn quickly. Not only has an Amber Alert been sent out—Roy broke back into the cult to grab Alton illegally—but the daylight makes Alton physically sick.
More light enters into the film gradually, as two parallel patterns emerge. Characters begin to learn more about each other and themselves, while the viewer continues to play catch-up, seeing these connections as they manifest themselves in action. Though the film takes place over the course of a three-day journey, the general trajectory is from nighttime to daytime—movements begin after the sun falls, leading to pivotal later moments set against revelatory sunrise. Alton has powers that often involve communication with satellites and can show others, through beams of blue light surging from his eyes, something that’s referred to as “another world.” The cult has interpreted this as the word of God. Roy, Lucas, later Sarah (Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s estranged mother,) and most characters have seen this world at least once. The metaphorical heft of what they see—and the experiential baggage that comes with the fact that we viewers haven’t seen it—enlarges as they move from darkness to light. In watching the car headlights project into the darkness, or only hearing (for now) secondhand accounts of “another world,” we exist continually on the anticipatory point between the seen and the unseen.
In one pivotal scene at a gas station, where the science fiction undertones of the film literally crash into the foreground, Alton is left alone in a van as Roy places the call that will bring them to Sarah for the first time, making a gesture towards repairing their damaged family. What better time, then, for Nichols to cross-cut to a moment of slight parental negligence with dire consequences. Alton’s powers begin to take hold in dramatic fashion, underscored by the film’s cut to a point-of-view shot, which displays the perspective of Alton while he looks up. He and the camera only see the plain metal roof of the van, despite the point-of-view shot using a foreboding lateral move which redirects our eyes towards the unseen. This van’s roof is the kind of resourceful scrap of reality that Nichols often uses to fashion together the metaphors that secure his film. Then an object of flashing lights appears in the sky. It’s a satellite, one that Alton’s peculiarly wired brain can communicate with, and can even drag down to Earth—which he does, until it explodes, sending meteors of debris hurtling into the gas station parking lot. It’s a jarring scene, one of such bombastic destruction that it seems spliced in from another movie, or another world.
As Midnight Special is preoccupied with seeing—what Alton sees, and what others see in him—it is equally about not seeing. Not only can the viewer not see into the transcendent visions the characters have, but most people in the film, including the FBI and the cult, fail to see Alton for what he is. He is two things: A star child who belongs in the mysterious “world above ours” on one side, and a son to a mother and father on the other. Roy and Sarah (and Nichols) have a hard time reconciling these facts in thought, if not in action, which is uniformly purposeful. The film carries on at such a clip for the 110 minutes, but the brief punctuation of balls-out sci-fi get progressively more brazen as we come to learn just how different Alton’s world is. The three adults spiriting Alton away experience a kind of revelation. And though Roy sees only glimpses of the other world; he, Lucas, and Sarah all share an understanding of their destined roles, as they become more of a family and less of one in the same moments. This seeing-the-light moment, which comes without us having really seen said light, takes place in a new motel room, where the symbolic cardboard and duct tape have been discarded.
Those two threads of family binds and self-actualization build to a climax in lock-step with the tight chase at the narrative’s core (by the time we get to Nichols’ equivalent of the 2001 “Jupiter” sequence.) We finally see the world above ours as presented to human eyes, ever so briefly, before it disappears in a flash. This cinematic vision is unparalleled in its drabness. It is ironic and fresh, the Nichols style giving us a down-to-earth “Beyond the Infinite.” But there is a sense of wonder the characters express that hints to an unknowable complexity beyond the drabness. This wonder exists in a space between seeing and knowing, one Midnight Special is tempted to call belief.