Here's the thing about Midnight Special: it's so damn close. Like, it's right there. It just needs to go over the edge and it never really does. I'll explain.
To be clear at the outset, none of my problems come from a lack of information about the mysteries that are present in the film such as they are. I don't really care about mysteries not being solved (I'm a fan of The Leftovers) SO LONG AS there is some solid character stuff to hang my hat on (or something else, I guess, but usually character stuff). The Leftovers will never explain why 1 percent of the population disappears and that's ok because we see the aftermath and the complete shift in the way the world works and the ways that people deal with the happening. But, because Midnight Special is an action movie at heart, Jeff Nichols seems to have just kind of forgotten to have interesting characters at the core of his movie. I think everybody goes above and beyond what they're given as actors here because they're all really great actors and Nichols is an amazing director. But outside of a few grace notes, everybody is also just kinda there. They don't mean anything, they don't even seem human much of the time.
The scene where Michael Shannon says "I like worrying about you" is a perfect example of what I wanted more of. That comes at the end of the film, basically, and finally has a character express something, anything, that isn't "I need to get this kid over here and I'm confident we're gonna do it." Where's the meaningful character interactions? And the worst part is that it all could have come together so well. The other beings at the end are a perfect symbol for parents. Always there, watching over our world and knowing more about it than we do, obviously. So give us more about Shannon and Dunst as parents! The movie is pretty clearly about this and I don't know anything about their relationship with their kid, or with each other, or with the cult, or anything, really. They want to get him to a place at a time. Why? How did they come up with this plan, were there arguments that could be readdressed during the course of the movie which could provide some inner tension to make the chase stuff even more interesting?
I'm only asking about all of this because I know Nichols can do better. Take Shelter is one of my favorite movies of all time, and Mud is right up there, too. I know he can weave dramatic plots with really spectacular and nuanced character stuff, but he seems to sacrifice all of the characters on the altar of the chase, and that's really really unfortunate. Just think about how quickly and interstingly he makes the father and mother in Take Shelter into fully rounded characters. It doesn't take much for him. And yet, it doesn't happen here. Which is a damn shame because I love basically everything else about this movie, including the end. Oh, and I wasn't sure that Shannon was being taken to be executed, though I guess that would also work. He's got things attached to his head, so I thought he was being tested by the government or something, which would line up with his eyes glowing (as the certainly do) in the last shot.