Sense of mystery lifts ‘Midnight Special’

4/5 stars

When it comes to storytelling, I’ve always been a “less is more” kind of guy. Taking the time to fully explain every key plot detail constricts the realm of possibility.

Take the “Star Wars” prequels, for instance. One of the countless reasons they’re trash movies is their insistence on connecting their dots to the dots drawn decades prior.

We don’t need to know that the Force is actually something in the bloodstream, or that Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was a baby. The audience gains absolutely nothing and loses the sense that the universe is vast and endless.

“Midnight Special” is alluring mostly due to its insistence on taking the opposite approach. It does just enough to hint at an enthralling mythos without being overbearing, and the extremely high quality of its performances help sell it.

Roy (Michael Shannon) has kidnapped eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), his biological son who was taken from him by a cult that lives on a ranch in Texas. You see, Alton can do all kinds of freaky things, from shooting beams of light out of his eyes to pulling satellites out of the sky, making him an object of worship.

Joining Roy and Alton is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper and childhood friend of Roy, and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Alton’s mother who was banished from the cult years before. Together, the group drives across Texas to escape the cult’s lackeys and law enforcement, as well as to get the young boy to a specific place at a specific time to ensure that something happens.

If you’re looking for a film that cleanly, explicitly wraps up all its mysteries by the end, look elsewhere. The genius of “Midnight Special” is in its tasteful employment of vagueness.

The very nature of Alton’s existence ties into some fairly heady concepts that would be the subjects of lengthy exposition dumped in some other film. Here, all we get is a sentence or two from the words of a child who doesn’t know how to explain what he’s seen.

In the end, we still don’t know why this core thing exists or how Alton came to be a part of it. What’s best is we never will, as “Midnight Special” is a standalone tale that exists purely on its own merits, unlike a certain feature-length “Justice League” trailer that came out recently.

Part of the mystery comes from the characters, who rarely take the time to have philosophical discussions about any of this. They’re all rural folks, and whether you think of them as incurious or just reserved, they aren’t interested in talking about it too much.

Shannon’s performance as Roy is brilliantly muted, and Edgerton perfectly fits into the role of the slightly more talkative (but mostly uninformed) audience surrogate. Dunst says more with her face than her words, simultaneously wanting to protect her son while knowing he may not be fit to inhabit the same world as her.

My biggest complaint with “Midnight Special” is that it reaches an exhilarating high point with a few minutes to go, but doesn’t stick the landing. It takes the effort to clearly show us a few things we could have inferred on our own, which I felt was slightly at odds with the non-specific nature of the rest of it.

Still, while not perfect, “Midnight Special” is mostly captivating. There are dozens of films I like more than this, but in a way that’s difficult to explain, I’m just sorta glad this one exists.