Early on in Midnight Special, Alton Meyer — the young boy at the center of the supernatural thriller from director Jeff Nichols — reads a Superman comic in the back seat of a car. Alton is a passenger on an arduous road trip, and we only see brief glimpses of the book, a fleeting page or two lit by the yellow glow of his flashlight; it's impossible to identify which Man of Steel story he's reading. The only thing we know is that Superman has been hobbled, because Alton asks a telling question.
"What's Kryptonite?" he asks his father, Roy, and Roy's childhood friend Lucas, the two men driving this adventure along.
They don't answer. They simply ignore the question and scold each other about the mistake of letting Alton read. The boy eventually loses interest in the topic and goes back to the comic, while the two men fall quiet and continue their journey to a destination only they know. And we're left feeling confused, as if we've been caught eavesdropping.
We don't know if Roy knows what Kryptonite is. Or maybe he does know what Kryptonite is (how could someone not know, right?) but is choosing to ignore his kid because he doesn't want to get Alton's imagination riled up. Maybe Roy just hates comic books. Only Roy knows for sure.
It's a frustrating moment of ambiguity. And it's a moment that defines Midnight Special, setting the tone for a deconstructed sci-fi flick. The film is an open-ended, rattling thrill ride that ignites the imagination, and a successful foray into the genre for Nichols.
Midnight Special is built on uncertainty
There's very little that's definite in this movie.
A father and son are flanked by two inevitable forces — a religious cult on one side and the American government on the other — that will catch them. Alton has powers: the ability to "talk" to and manipulate machines, and the ability to shoot beams of light from his eyes. And Alton and Ray are trying to get from San Angelo, Texas, to some unspecified destination.
The rest of the details are blurry. We don't know which evil is the better option. Alton is powerful, but no one ever says what he can or can't do. Trying to pinpoint the nature of his relationship with his father results in nothing more than a guess.
It's a testament to Nichols's storytelling (he also wrote the film) that he's able to shape Midnight Special's cagey ambiguity and mystery into a tense, airless thriller. The movie occasionally buckles under the weight of so much buildup. But for large swaths of its nearly two-hour running time, Midnight Special is a clinic in minimalist exposition, taking us on a ride that we want to be a part of but don't know why. It's compelling and magnetic, and its best parts are better than anything the superhero industry has given us in a while.
The film is essentially a modern-day Superman story
When we talk about Superman, we tend to focus on his superheroics: He can leap tall buildings in a single bound, he's faster than a speeding bullet, he's more powerful than a locomotive, all that jazz. What gets lost when we focus on the character's many incredible feats is that his story is also about parenthood and trying to give children a better life. The only reason Superman is sent to Earth is that his parents shuttle him away, so that he can escape from a home planet under siege.
Midnight Special riffs on this aspect of Superman's backstory with the two forces trying to get their hands on Alton and the relationship between Alton and his father, which isn't particularly loving. I might even say it's cold.
When it comes to his relationship with his son, Michael Shannon's Roy is a man of many squints and knitted brows but few words. He cradles Alton during the boy's outbursts, but there is no other tenderness between them. And Jaeden Lieberher is precocious and elegant as Alton, who seems too frail for anything more than being held.
Without physical affection, the only display of love we see between the two is Roy's enduring devotion to getting his son to safety, and Alton's trust that his father (along with Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton, and Alton's mother, played by Kirsten Dunst) will keep him free of harm.
Alton and Roy are on the run from both an extreme religion and an extreme government. The cult believes Alton is their savior and will do anything, including pumping people full of bullets, to get him back. And the government — the FBI and NSA — see Alton as a threat to be contained.
If Superman crash-landed on Earth today, it's not hard to imagine that he'd face that same dual reaction. And it's riveting to see how Nichols pictures it playing out.
Midnight Special initially succeeds by not providing answers — but falters by trying to throw some in at the end
Even though the film is full of unknowns, you won't get hung up trying to solve its various mysteries. Much of the action lingers in a swirling brinkmanship with exposition, serving up bits and pieces to chew on, but nothing so hearty that it gives everything away. The looser, the better.
But Midnight Special eventually hits a place where its unbound freedom runs up against structure, and all the jagged bits Nichols has thrown into motion have to come together. And it's there, when all of its moving parts start humming along on the same frequency, that Midnight Special begins to feel less, well, special.
It's not that these spinning parts aren't well-acted (Adam Driver as an NSA everyman Paul Sevier is so very good), but as they lock into place, they pin the movie down, grinding out the mysterious everythingness in its bones.
It all begins to feel a bit too tidy for a movie that initially doesn't seem to be tidy at all. The final act doesn't match the crackle of its buildup. It all feels a little too safe, and threatens to be a little too tidy.
But by no means does it derail the experience Nichols gives us.
There's a moment where this broken family decides it's time. That it's do or die for their super boy. They prepare for a final attempt to get Alton where he needs to be. They come to peace with the fact that things might not work out, and they can't run forever. And even though you know they're right, there's still a part of you that wants to see them try.
Midnight Special is playing in select theaters now.