Jeff Nichols is crazy talented. Let me get that out of the way first.
Maybe it isn’t fair to measure his latest, Midnight Special (★★½), against Close Encounters or E.T., but Nichols himself invited the Spielberg comparisons in introducing the film at SXSW. The oddest thing about Nichols’s Spielberg mashup is that its strengths and weaknesses are the exact opposite of what you might expect from the creator of Mud and Take Shelter. There are moments of iconic beauty and visual terror, but the writing is plodding and the slow pace eventually makes one realize just how little story there is to unfold. .
Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton play a pair of men who are taking a boy named Alton…somewhere…in order to either do…something or to keep him out of the hands of the government that wants him for…some reason. Federal agents raid a “compound” looking for the boy and spend a lot of time peering at white boards with sermon notes that may be gobbledygook or may have encoded messages.
I’m all for starting en medias res and letting the audience figure out what is happening through observing, but there is a difference between being mysterious and being opaque. There is an archetypal sympathy one has for people being chased, but the film never stops long enough to do more than hint at what’s at stake. Also, given the abilities that child is revealed to have, it’s not entirely clear why he needs the adults to protect him. A late encounter between Alton and a federal agent played by Adam Driver suggests he doesn’t.
But if the story is generic, its telling is executed with a refreshing economy of scale (even the special effects are modest) and a willingness to let the cast do the heavy lifting. Edgerton, especially, stand’s out. His is the character that is not directly related to the boy for whom much is being risked, so he is as close as we get to an audience surrogate. We may not have heard the whole story, but we trust he has–or at least that he vouches for the goodness of those we might otherwise find suspect.
Watch the trailer carefully and you’ll notice one of Alton’s pursuer’s declares that he thinks the boy is a weapon while members of Alton’s community believe he might be their “savior.” Clearly one doesn’t drop this sort of language into a film unless one wants to make a comment about religion, but the “ranch” that Alton has left (and which his father was a part), is another underdeveloped piece of the story. We are told they were on the government’s watch list because of buying up weapons, but we don’t really get a sense of what their purpose was or whether it had a mission prior to or apart from Alton’s unique abilities. What Alton might be saving them from is anyone’s guess.
The sketchiness of the details may not matter much. Nichols’s films, particularly Take Shelter, have always struck me as better at creating a mood than a complex narrative. Take it as the story of a bond between father and son rather than one hinting at any cosmic significance and it is enjoyable enough.