MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a film that plays with its audience’s sense of normality. Beginning in the conventional and slowly, almost imperceptibly, moving us from the quotidian drama of a kidnapped child and a father’s unconditional love, into a boldly unconventional consideration of that elusive point where science and spirituality merge. There is nothing predictable here, no point of reference that will orient us into the comfort of a familiar genre. Instead, there is a departure from all that we expect and all that we know, even as the child in question is a creature wholly unique in cinema.
The child is eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a calm boy in goggles and headphones who quietly reads a comic book as an Amber Alert sends the public and law enforcement on an all-out quest to find him and the man that abducted him, Roy (Michael Shannon). They are not the only ones anxious to find him. The fundamentalist compound where Alton lived with his adopted father (Sam Shepard) who is also the leader of the community, has its own agenda for is return involving a four-day deadline. As the story unfolds, and the FBI rounds up the residents of the compound for questioning, publicly about their newly stockpiled cache of weapons, but privately to investigate why Alton figures so prominently in their eschatological theology. They have their reasons, as explained by the eager braniac on the scene, NSA specialist on the scene, Paul (Adam Driver), who has found a troubling correspondence with the sermons the leader has been preaching and the deepest, darkest of government secrets.
What makes Alton so special is a reveal best described as punctuated equilibrium, each punctuation leading to more confusion than revelation. The tension of Roy’s flight through the dark woods of the Texas and Louisiana will suddenly explode with an event that defies explanation. Roy’s determination to let nothing stop him becomes the only touchstone that we in the audience have while watching fire from the sky, eyes that don’t behave the way that they should, and heat sensors detect something that should not be happening. To varying degrees, everyone on screen knows more than we do at any given moment, but such is the power of Shannon’s performance, there is never a doubt that he is doing the right thing, even if that means leaving a badly injured woman by the side of the road, or shooting a state trooper. This is a performance of power and subtlety. One that rarely needs words except to murmur comfort to Alton, or bark orders to his partner in kidnapping, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). When Roy first sets eyes on his estranged wife (Kirsten Dunst), there is such tenderness and such profound love in those eyes and on his face that words are completely would only detract from the moment, and the script wisely chooses to eschew them. Edgerton, for his part, is also subtle, becoming the audience surrogate, watching Alton’s manifestations in wonder that is equal parts amazement, faith, and fear. Faith in Roy that is a reflection of Roy’s total faith in Alton, and in what needs to be done.
Without engaging in specious monologues or dialectics on identity, parental responsibility, reality, or the way people project what they fear and/or need on what they don’t understand, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL confronts all those issues with intelligence and insight. It also considers them without the use of straw men as enemies to be contemptuously swept aside. Expect the unexpected, and prepare to be challenged as well as dazzled.