Midnight Special begins deep in the middle of a story, and trusts audiences to catch up. It opens on a newscast telling the story of a boy that’s gone missing. That boy, Alton (Jaeden Liberher), is under a blanket reading comic books in a motel room. With him are Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who are soon ushering him into a vehicle. As they leave, a motel attendant watching the newscast notices the trio, and calls the authorities. But Roy, Lucas and Alton are already on their way, and with the help of darkness and a police monitor, they attempt to elude authorities as they make their way to an unspecified destination.
The reason for their flight and the significance of the destination is kept a mystery for a good while long. The film suddenly cuts away to a compound in Texas, where what appears a cult is holding a service before the FBI comes in and rounds them up. NSA Analyst Sevier (Adam Driver) arrives to interview the members one by one, trying to get to the bottom of their beliefs, which are somehow tied to deeply classified government transmissions.
The film deploys facts sparingly, but it isn’t holding them back for the benefit of a final twist. This is a very straightforward film with a single destination in mind. It harnesses the joy of discovery as it deploys its layers of strangeness. And through this, the film explores our relationship with that which is greater than us, with all the stuff that we cannot comprehend. Through its various characters, the movie sketches out the different reactions one can have to the unknown, ultimately stumping for a sense of wonder and weirdness in a world that’s grown wary of everything that’s different.
The less one knows about the underpinnings of this story, the better. Again, this film gains a lot from having the audience discover all the details as the plot goes on. It is enough that the film has a sense of urgency and direction. This is why it starts so late in the game, deep in the middle of the story. It skips the exposition and gets straight into the muck. The film doesn’t always sustain its momentum, and there are elements of it that feel underserved in the end. But for the most part, this film just keeps barreling forward with palpable tension. These are people who have been put into extraordinary circumstances, and there is dramatic weight in simply having them react to the strangeness in different ways.
The film is essentially a smaller scale version of a blockbuster film. This is a story of huge, extraordinary implications told on an intimate level, concentrating on the relationships formed around the major, blockbuster-type event. The filmmaking recalls the best of Spielberg in the 80s, the camera finding magic in the mundane, and terror in everything that’s bigger than us. The intimacy puts greater pressure on the actors, but this is a cast that handles all of it with aplomb. Some of these characters are ciphers at best, but the likes of Michael Shannon and Adam Driver give plenty of interesting detail to these sparse canvases of character.
Midnight Special is remarkable in its smallness. It is in fact so beautiful in its restraint that it’s actually a little disappointing when it flirts with something larger. It doesn’t quite have the resources to pull off certain bits of its vision, and it might have been preferable to keep downplaying those aspects in favor of the intimacy of its emotions. Still, this is a remarkable film that delves deep into our ability to create narratives around the things we don’t quite understand, and emerges with a moving depiction of what it means to love.