I fell in love with Jaeden Lieberher, who is featured in "Midnight Special" as Alton Meyer, when he starred opposite Bill Murray in "St. Vincent". Now 13 years old, he is as adorable as he was then, and his cherubic features lend themselves perfectly to the other-world character he portrays.
Alton is on the run with his birth father, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), and Roy's childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). They are desperately trying to escape the clutches of many foe, first and foremost, members of the "ranch" led by Pastor Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the man who "adopted" Alton away from Roy.
Also in the chase is the U.S. government, wanting to capture Alton and use him as a weapon. NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) has been tasked with figuring out who or what Alton is --- and how the government can best use him.
Along the way, Alton's birth mother, and Roy's estranged wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), joins the trio in their highly dangerous efforts to get Alton from Texas to the Florida coast. Just how far will his parents and Lucas go to ensure Alton's safety, and in allowing him to fulfill his destiny?
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols ("Mud", "Take Shelter"), "Midnight Special" has a great feel and look, aided by director of photography Adam Stone, who worked with Nichols on both "Mud" and "Take Shelter". The premise is also an interesting spin on beings from outer space, etc. But, alas, Nichols' script is less than thrilling.
The entire "ranch" subplot never generates any real fear or anxiety. Sevier interrogates many of the members, without a shred of mystery, malice or menace. Even the final end run to the Florida marshes produces not one tense moment. And the payoff is way less than satisfying.
Despite Lieberher's immense efforts to mystify Alton, and he manages beautifully, it's not enough to carry the movie. Alton does create one spectacular scene when he causes a satellite to crash and obliterate the gas station/convenience store where they have stopped for a break.
Besides Alton, Agent Sevier is the only other person in "Midnight Special" who generates any interest. Driver is really, really good as the nerdy operative who is genuinely more curious about Alton than wishing him harm or seeing him captured. His assessment and portrayal of Sevier is spot on, and offers the only levity in the script.
Shannon is quite an accomplished actor, which is why his performance as Roy is so surprising. Not for one minute did I buy his concerned, loving parent act. He seems disoriented and/or bored by the plight of this father and son. His lack of conviction for this part is totally disappointing.
Even Edgerton and Dunst do little to add anything of substance to this movie. An actor can only do so much with what he/she is given, and both of these fine thespians are woefully underutilized.
"Mud" was one of the surprise and utterly superb and successful independent films of 2013. Perhaps we've come to expect too much from Nichols --- or maybe he should re-team with Matthew McConaughey. Instead he is collaborating again with Shannon and Edgerton on a new feature film called "Loving". Let's hope these guys bring their "A" game to that one.
Opinion: Wait for DVD
"Midnight Special" is a bleak, joyless film that's not for everyone, yet I give it kudos for originality. Writer/director Jeff Nichols ("Mud") has created a unique mystery about a young boy with supernatural powers, the estranged parents who love him, and the devotion of a friend who is committed to the boy's well-being.
Michael Shannon certainly doesn't shy away from unorthodox roles. As Roy Tomlin, the father of young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), his character is pensive and moody, but not totally convincing as his son's protector. There is a lingering feeling that Alton belongs somewhere else in the universe, a sense shared by his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). But Shannon doesn't emit a true sense of urgency or concern for his boy.
Roy's friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) is along for the ride that includes a cult leader (Sam Shepard), a bevy of FBI and government operatives, and an NSA agent named Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). Driver's droll, deadpan performance is the best in the film. The storyline of the potentially dangerous religious cult disappears completely from the story once Shepard's character is interviewed by authorities, his last comment that they have no idea what they're dealing with. It would have been an interesting subplot to fully develop.
Fans of the Bill Murray vehicle "St. Vincent" will remember Lieberher as Oliver in that film, in which the young actor was terrific. He's also capable in this film, yet his character evokes little sympathy as the boy who might have to leave his parents behind. His matter-of-fact countenance does not lend itself to a wide range of emotions, so some moviegoers may find it difficult to relate to him.
"Midnight Special" begins in intriguing fashion since we don't know if Roy and Lucas have kidnapped a young boy. It features exciting car chases, and a futuristic set that is spectacular. But it suffers from a lack of poignancy that the audience must feel in order to be fully caught up in the plight of its protagonists.
Opinion: Wait for DVD