You probably haven’t heard of Midnight Special. And that’s okay. If you’re a fan of comic books or 1980s science fiction films, you will. I first became aware of it because of a random TV commercial that ran during NCIS. Yes, I liked this movie so much, I just admitted to watching NCIS.
Midnight Special stars Michael Shannon as Roy Tomlin, a simple Southern father with a very exceptional kid. The kid is so exceptional that Shannon’s character has to kidnap him away from a religious cult, to get him to a specific destination for reasons unknown at the start of the story. I say “story” with purpose. Midnight Special is not a film you see for the visual effects or the water cooler cred. It’s a film you see to go on a journey. It makes you believe.
Belief is the central theme of Midnight Special. It is, essentially, a film about the agnostic condition for belief: if physical evidence of a higher power is presented, an agnostic will believe. Now some would claim that this is, in fact, not belief at all. Belief is what occurs in the absence of facts. Midnight Special defies this simple binary. The characters are all given an element of proof that something beyond the mundane is happening, but they all contextualize it differently. They are presented with proof of things beyond their ken, but what that means is up to both the characters and the audience to decipher.
Accordingly, Midnight Special doesn’t hold the audience’s hand. It presents its narrative in simple, stark, bare bones terms, and expects that the audience will pick up little things here and there without having the dots deliberately connected. Therefore, the interpretation of the events of the film will be different for everyone. My personal takeaway was a combination of ancient astronaut theory, quantum entanglement, and ET the Extra-Terrestrial. Your interpretation will be different, because it’s all about what you believe happened, not an objective canon.
After the churn of “be all things to all people” superhero films, Midnight Special is a glorious breath of fresh air. All the performances are excellent, with an eerily profound performance by eleven year-old Jaeden Lieberher being a standout. Joel Edgerton also turns in a meaningful everyman performance as Lucas, the closest thing the film has to a skeptic. But it’s Michael Shannon who carries the film, as a tired, overwhelmed, terrified father on the edge who can’t show the son he loves more than anything any of those emotions. He steps into the shoes of a father whose child is beyond his understanding, but who is still a child, reading comic books by flashlight under a bedsheet. He’s the parent ever nerd wishes they had.
Fatherly love is often shown as a miserable, distant task, but many of Midnight Special‘s pivotal moments take place with father and son locked in tight embraces. It’s a metaphor for parenting in the digital age, when you have to let your child find their own way in a world beyond your experience, and hope love is enough. Possibly the most masterful moment in a film full of wonders is the ending, which is satisfying without being syrupy. Again, however, the message of that ending is found in what the audience infers in the wordless expressions and gestures the actors exchange. Those silences are where Midnight Special finds the transcendence that only the most lovingly crafted films manage.