“Ya’ll have no idea what you’re dealing with, do you”
Let me get this out of the way first; Midnight Special is not a perfect movie. There are multiple character development issues, sharp shifts in tone, almost no feminine influences to be found. Spots could have been better. But like the bewitching and dogmatic theme of the movie itself, it takes an awareness to understand that you can love a blemished entity. There can be wrinkles and spots and dents. As is the case with the latest from Jeff Nichols. The director shows absolute control over his vision by melding together sci-fi, drama, and adventure into an all-in-one excursion of the head and the heart. Midnight Special unfolds as a film about knowing, leaving us to grapple with our thoughts in a room where the shades are just barely lifted. It’s there where we are tasked with the immeasurable importance of discovery in the world and through the self. Search this one out.
On the lam from the government and a commune called The Ranch, Roy (Michael Shannon) devotes himself to protecting his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). An old friend named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) comes along for the ride. We’re never told why, but we willingly go along with it because the actors themselves do. Alton is allegorical in a sense, an embodied representation of the word “different.” He’s seen in four various ways. To the government, the wonderkid is a weapon. To The Ranch, he’s an all-knowing and all-powerful savior. To Roy, and to his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), both runaway members of the cult, Alton is simply their child. And then there’s how the boy views himself, which is as a person from another plane of existence. Sometimes we see things not for what they are, but for what we want/need them to be. In that regard, Midnight Special’s scope of perspective is profound.
Nichols makes movies like a veteran poker player sitting at the big table. He knows his hand, bluffs and checks, optimizes every step without giving too much away. You expect pictures with his name stamped on them to be ambiguous. Despite the reserved approach though, Nichols’ 4th film serving as director/writer embellishes the crevices of the screen like the true artist that he is. He allows for silence when countless others would settle for exposition. Nichols has even said in interviews that he doesn’t necessarily care about his films having a finite explanation. What a trait to have, because too many movies nowadays spoon-feed their audiences like babies in a high chair, excitedly waiting for the airplane of Gerber mush to whiz its way into their open mouths. Midnight Special remains unique because it allows the audience to form a symbiotic relationship that refuses to become parasitic on the viewer’s intelligence.
If you’ve watched Nichols’ three other outings, all of which include Michael Shannon – an American treasure in acting – then you know the filmmaker has yet to develop substantial female characters. None of his stories pass the Bechdel test because they’re led by men and are so focused on picking their brains. Here, Dunst rarely gets to speak, spending most of her time in the background looking on in concern. She either needed elaboration or to be removed from the script so as to make way for a more complex relationship between Roy and Lucas. Sarah and the stiff NSA agent played by Adam Driver are around in important scenes even if their presences aren’t justified. Script issues aside, Nichols and his cast deserve all the credit in the world for bringing such a compelling, thoughtful, and original film to the screen. Keep in mind when the third act takes a major turn into unknown territory that Nichols is asking you to submit to the naivete of childlike innocence. After all, Midnight Special is a film about credence momentarily suspending the suspicion and the doubt of the world and all those in it. Belief, with eyes closed or wide open, only needs a little bit of faith to be felt.
“Sometimes we are asked to do things that are beyond us.”
Rating: 4 out of 5