And the final destination for that journey is surprisingly emotionally resonant. Alton being “special” could easily be read as an allegory for a sick child, one who is not like the others and needs a different kind of care and attention; one who is special in a way that only parents who have dealt with that kind of pain and loss could understand. There is also an undeniable story of faith buried in “Midnight Special” about believing in something unseen, something greater than ourselves. Much of this emotional undercurrent falls on the shoulders of Nichols’ cast, especially the driven, subtle performance from Michael Shannon, although he’s matched by great work from Dunst, Edgerton, Driver, and the rest of the cast.
The amazing nature of “Midnight Special” also relies on essential contributions from cinematographer Adam Stone (a close associate of Nichols) and composer David Wingo. Stone captures the natural world almost as another character and makes a work of art out of a sequence that hinges on a sunrise. Nichols and Stone’s compositions are completed by Wingo’s score, which often drives us to the film’s emotions as it goes daringly dialogue-free for large chunks of the action.
In the end, the highlight of this movie lies in the power of visual storytelling. It is images from the film that pass through my mind most; flames falling from the sky, a father carrying his child, the shaking of grass as something is about to happen, and the jaw-dropping finale. Nichols is the rare filmmaker who gives his audience a lot to take away from the best films, who also exemplifies the powerful way that art reflects that which transcends words: a father’s dedication, the pain of a sick child, belief in something greater than us. Sure, we quote our favorite lines and do impressions of characters, but it is the pictures that haunt us, that linger in our mind, and that stay with us.