I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see a poster that proudly bore the words, “From the director of Take Shelter and Mud.” Two of the most outrageously underrated movies I’ve covered on this blog, and now writer/director Jeff Nichols is finally getting his due with prominent mentions in advertising and a film with a solid wide release. So let’s dig right in, shall we?
Midnight Special is centered around young Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher, who was previously somewhere in the clusterfuck of Aloha). All we really know about Alton at first is that he’s been kidnapped by Roy (played by Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon), and even that turns out to be a lie.
In truth, Alton was raised by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the leader of a secluded religious cult called “The Ranch”. It’s unclear whether Alton was adopted or kidnapped or something in between, but what’s perfectly clear is that Alton has been made the centerpiece of The Ranch.
I don’t want to go into detail about Alton’s peculiar nature, since the whole film is built around the mystery of what Alton is and what he can do. So for now, let’s just say that Alton has the ability to do things in such a way that it could easily inspire a sort of cult-like fanaticism. Even better, Alton can say things and hear things that no normal person could possibly know. What kind of things? Oh, you know, weather forecasts, GPS coordinates, heavily encrypted government secrets, that sort of thing.
The federal government of course takes issue with Calvin using highly classified intel for his sermons. And the feds REALLY don’t like it that the cult has been stockpiling guns for some strange event (naturally involving Alton) in four days’ time. So the FBI barges in, demanding to speak with Alton. Trouble is, Calvin and his crew don’t know where he is, either.
This brings us back to the alleged kidnapping. See, Roy is a disillusioned former member of The Ranch, and he’s also Alton’s biological father. It seems that he didn’t like Calvin’s plans for young Alton, so Roy decided to take his son to some other unknown point for the big day. He’s accompanied by Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who’s perfectly willing to lay down his life for Roy and his son, for reasons disclosed later in the film.
Elsewhere in the cast, Kirsten Dunst joins in about halfway through as Alton’s birth mother. Rounding out the supporting cast is Adam Driver, here playing an NSA analyst who takes point in chasing down Alton and figuring out what’s going on.
At this point, take a moment and go back to read through the actors involved with this film. There are a lot of seasoned veterans in this cast, and they’re all incredible to watch. Not a single dud to be found. The only real wild card here is Jaeden Lieberher, and he does a suitably fine job of playing your standard “creepy precocious demon child.”
Praise is also due to David Wingo, who composed a suitably eerie and wondrous score. Regarding the visuals, this has to be the first time I’ve ever seen lens flares used in a way that was sincerely beautiful. The lens flares weren’t remotely distracting, but somehow added to the otherworldly nature of the story.
As for the story and the themes involved… whoo boy. Where do I even begin?
The central premise is so outlandish that this is definitely a case in which the mystery is so much more interesting than any possible solution. There could be any number of reasons why Alton has his abilities, and it’s safe to assume that any of them would ultimately be a disappointment. So at the end of the day, the film doesn’t offer any solution. Kinda.
I’m sorry, but I can’t go into a lot of depth on this. Not only am I trying to avoid spoilers, since this is the whole point of the movie and there’s so much fun in the process of discovery, but the unfolding mythology is very abstract in nature. Through Alton, we learn that there’s something else going on under the surface, and every answer about it raises at least ten new questions.
There are so many unanswered questions and unquestioned answers, in large part because what we see and learn could be interpreted in so many different ways. Whether it’s scientific or magical, fantastic or mundane, is entirely up to the viewer. It really speaks to Jeff Nichols’ talent as a director that he was able to craft something this opaque and open-ended, and do it in such a way that the whole film didn’t collapse into a formless and pretentious mush.
A lot of that has to do with the nature of the plot. Underneath all the spiritual sci-fi trappings, this is essentially a story about a family on the run from some very dangerous people. The notion of someone running away from someone else is a very simple conflict, and it’s easy to hang onto that no matter how esoteric things get. Moreover, the family angle is so instantly relateable (and again, so superbly acted) that it provides a strong emotional core. Not only does it give us a solid reason to invest in what happens to these characters, but we’re far more likely to believe whatever bizarre discoveries they’re led to believe.
This brings me to a far more important factor: the film’s central theme of faith. The knee-jerk reaction is to associate “faith” with any particular kind of god or religion or dogma, and to do so would be playing right into the film’s hands. In a heavily implicit way (remember, this is only one interpretation out of possible millions), the film states that religion is merely another way for humans to grossly oversimplify the incomprehensible grandeur of existence. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true.
As the plot unfolds, the characters are exposed to plenty of visions and revelations and miracles that couldn’t possibly be explained. And so the automatic response is either to ignore those extraordinary events out of hand, or to simplify it by way of a belief structure. Granted, there’s nothing to say that there isn’t some deity or messiah involved in all of this, but there’s still no proof one way or the other.
In any case, there’s only one way to deal with something that is so impossibly huge and wondrous: Faith. Whether it’s faith in a higher power or faith in our shared humanity, that’s up to you. But without faith that everything will somehow work out for the best, what difference does the rest make?
And anyway, as I said before, any full explanation of what’s going on would ultimately turn out to be a disappointment. The third act is full of so many moments that are nothing short of magical, and like any magic, it would disappear if fully explained. Moreover, explanation would require dumbing the concepts down to our level, and I’m not sure if that’s something that could or should be done.
Midnight Special really should be Jeff Nichols’ ticket to the A-list. Not only did he assemble a top-notch cast of actors and coax fine performances from all of them, but he made a gorgeous and bold movie on a reported budget of only $18 million. I expect that a lot of moviegoers will be irked by the film’s Lindelof-esque habit of teasing questions only to answer them with unsolvable riddles. Yet even without those trappings, the film works as a well-paced and thrilling story about a boy on the run with his family.
Plus, the more outlandish aspects were put together with such intelligence and reverence that I genuinely enjoyed dissecting them and coming up with my own interpretations. It’s an open-ended movie about the open-ended nature of existence, and I can’t tell you how much I respect Nichols for pulling that off.
The movie is bold, thoughtful, intelligent, and ambitious, and you should definitely check it out for that much. But if you’re expecting a quick and easy flick to be enjoyed passively, look elsewhere.