Pareidolia is the term for the human brain’s ability to percieve something where nothing really exists. Like the weathered cliff face that resembles the profile of an old man, or spotting Christ in a piece of burned toast, our desire to see ourselves in the world is practically hallucinatory. Midnight Special follows the narrative equivalent of this phenomenon, humans searching for humanity where none may really exist.
No time is wasted in setting up the basics. There is a boy, Alton, (Jaeden Leiberher) who possesses extraordinary abilities. He’s been taken by two men, Roy and Lucas (Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton),who believe the boy has an important task to carry out, and will get him to where he needs to be at any cost. Evil forces pursue the trio, determined to use the boy for their own purposes. The film opens with their journey already under-way, and as the stakes continue to rise we learn more about Alton’s ultimate purpose. In an era of franchises and Cinematic Universes, it’s a welcome change to get thrown into an entertaining narrative without having to dig through a thick crust of references and exposition.
This less-is-more approach extends throughout the film, and by keeping things simple writer/director Jeff Nichols gives himself a lot of room to play with tone and mood, imbuing even minor actions with weight and purpose. Nicholas has referenced John Carpenter’s 1984 film Starman as inspiration, and while Carpenter’s work is clearly influential here it feels more like homage than derivation. Indeed, Midnight Special’s reluctance to ground the film in the now means it could have been easily set anytime in the last 30 years with little, if anything changed. The narrative choice to have Alton be extremely sensitive to sunlight feels like something from the Carpenter playbook, he is forced to live in a light cycle that is entirely artificial. Cold blues of gas station neons and truck stop bathrooms hint at the unknown terrors lurking along the American highway, while the faint, sickly yellows of suburban homes reinforce their isolation.
Michael Shannon has some of the best brow-furrowing work in the game, and he puts it to excellent use here as the concerned father figure, struggling to retain composure while he defends his charge. He remains a tower of quiet desperation, trying to keep Alton alive as his heart slowly breaks over the realisation of what’s to come. Joel Edgerton delivers some career best work as the stoic, level-headed Lucas whose tough guy mumbling is punctuated by moments of intense silence. He’s at his most effective in those moments, his face scarcely managing to hide the overwhelming awe that compels him to act. Kirsten Dunst is quietly devastating as Sarah Tomlin, a woman who’s already been forced to live underground, and her presence grounds Alton to the real world, keeping from becoming too much of a pure Macguffin.
Midnight Special is part of a rare group of films, science-fiction stories written with adult audience in mind, made by a creative team with a fresh and exciting take on thought provoking material. A must see for anyone with even a casual interest in the genre.