Certificate 12A, 112 minutes
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst
Midnight Special opens with a black screen and a news programme which has a report of an Amber Alert for an 8 year old boy who has been kidnapped from his home near San Angelo in Texas. When the black screen goes, the scene is of a motel room with two men with the television. One of the men looks to be the man on the television, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel), but older - the photograph itself looks quite old. There is another man, Lucas (Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby), whose appearance looks faintly military in nature, and the two are packing away several guns. There is a young boy with them, naturally enough, the missing boy Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). The boy is not restrained in any way, and doesn't look at all worried to be with the men. There are some oddities, though - the boy is wearing goggles and ear protectors for some reason, and this is not just a strange affectation. The window of the motel room is also blacked out with cardboard, and the peephole is covered with black tape.
Roy is the boy's natural father, and this may look like a simple story of a parent kidnapping their own child. It's not that simple though. Roy took the boy from the Ranch, a religious compound run by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Calvin had adopted the boy, and wants to get him back within four days. The cult, in the moments just before it is raided by the FBI, led by Agent Miller (Paul Sparks), seem more than a little odd, even for an American religious cult, with their sermons having responses consisting of strings of numbers, and being quotes from readings only a few years old.
The cult looks upon Alton as their saviour, and want him back. They are not the ones who called in the Amber Alert. This was presumably done by the FBI, who are looking for Alton for their own reasons. The FBI detain everyone at the Ranch and bring them in for questioning at a local school, and the interviews only reinforce the odd feelings about the cult, but they are definitely fixated on Alton, having even altered their lives around him. The reasons that the government is looking for the boy become more apparent with the appearance of Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens) of the National Security Agency. It seems that the strange sermons at the Ranch contain government information that has been hacked in a way that should be impossible, and Sevier and the NSA want to know how.
Roy and Lucas are first heading to find Sarah Tomlin (Kirsten Dunst), Alton's mother (Calvin made out that she had deserted the child, but that doesn't appear to be the case), and then they are going to the location. Alton himself doesn't look very well, and deteriorates as time passes, but why isn't known, and he also has an odd reaction to sunlight, which is why the motel room's window was blacked out at the beginning. As well as avoiding the cultists who are looking for Alton, they also have to avoid the forces of the FBI, as well as the military. Alton's ability to access secret government information has them worried, never mind all the other odd events that seem to happen around him. His abilities, and the things that he can make people see, do have a profound effect on those that experience them directly.
With Alton having some sort of problem with daylight, a lot of the film takes place during the dark, either at night or in rooms lit solely by artificial light, which does make it quite atmospheric. There are moments where there's a lot of talking, but there are other moments where there's only silence, simply ambient noise and instrumental music. careful attention really needs to be paid to what is happening, as Midnight Express is a film that certainly requires some thinking, and what is going on cannot be quickly fathomed out, although there are hints dropped throughout the film. From the earlier hints, some assumptions may be made that are wrong. This is a combination of a vocal film and one that's very quiet, and the musical choices add to its atmosphere.
Oddly, the film doesn't feel as long as it is - and it's the best part of two hours long, which is rather above average for most films - even though it's not fast paced at all. The acting, and the need to find out what is going on, make the film oddly gripping to watch. There is an ongoing chase as the government and the Ranch are looking for Alton, and there are guns around, but it's definitely not an action film either. This is a science fiction film, but quite a cerebral one, rather than one that relies purely on special effects and action (and it's nothing like the big science fiction films that a couple of the stars have appeared in). Fortunately, it doesn't seem to make the mistake of trying too hard to be stylish, which so many films in this sort of situation do, it just stands on its own merits. Midnight Special is definitely worth a watch, although it's probably not to everyone's taste, being very different to most (but not all) other current films in the genre.