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Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver
In a hotel room, two men, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Roy (Michael Shannon) watch the news about a kidnapped boy (Jaeden Lieberher), one holding a gun by the door and the other kneeling before a child under a blanket, his eyes shielded by heavy black googles and ears smothered by large noise-suppressing headphones. The man by the door says it’s time, and the three then sprint to a rundown car in the parking lot and drive off, the clerk at the desk noticing and making a call.
Meanwhile, at a secluded compound called “The Ranch”, the FBI raid a meeting hall and collect the congregation in school buses and pull their leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) aside for questioning. Leading the interview is Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a specialist who wants to understand about the religion that has formed around a boy, who to the cult, is a prophet, speaking in tongues and quoting numbers that have great significance to them, but also to the government. The boy’s name is Alton and the numbers appear to point to a specific location and time that the men are determined to get to, no matter the cost.
Alton can do more that recite numbers. He can fire a powerful blue beam of light from his eyes that when seen by another, wholly transforms their view of life and that life’s meaning. The cult believes it’s religious, a sign from God, while the government think differently. For Roy, it doesn’t matter. This is about about being a father. His boy is the only thing he’s ever believed in, and to lose Alton is to lose everything.
Directed by Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special is spectacular achievement, a visually arresting piece of art that is not easy to watch, and that is the highest of compliments. It challenges the viewer to make conclusions, to draw from what we see and want to believe and allow us to make choices on our own. Who is Alton? Where does he come from? Why is he here?
What is in play has themes from many other films that are of equal importance. John Carpenter‘s Starman, Steven Spielberg‘s E.T- The Extra-terrestrial, and even James Cameron’s The Abyss are three that immediately come to mind, each featuring a unique being who desires to return to their homes. Like these films, it is the journey in Midnight Special that defines the experience. Alton is a boy who presents us with staggering questions, some linear, but most branching that would have no end. Our assumptions about his identity are invariably right and wrong, and while we learn mostly about what he is (I shall now reveal it here), we are still left with the perfect balance of knowledge and ambiguity. It is the unseen changed world after the story concludes (like Starman, E.T., and The Abyss) that has the greater impact.
Nichols accomplishes something that is very rare in film these days, a story driven by the visuals, a narrative spun around few words and powerful imagery. He is confident the audience will be able to follow and never once falls to the temptation to make it easier. In any other case, we would be listening to narration and or given unnecessary exposition, and indeed, many might wish this had some, but that is an impulse reaction based on a spoon-fed movie culture. Here, long stretches pass with hardly a word, or just a glance and a knowing nod, and it’s startling how much is communicated.
Much of that falls on cinematographer Adam Stone, who captures the landscape in breathless natural light, and as Alton is (at first) unable to see the sun because of its harmful light, there is great use of darkness throughout, though a sensational moment in a sunrise is stirring. That comes too from the gentle, often minimal but haunting score by David Wingo, who I first took note of in David Gordon Green‘s All the Real Girls and has consistently produced great work.
As for performances, Shannon is essentially the lead, and he is very good, an actor most might recognize as General Zod from Man of Steel. He’s been a Nichols staple, and with this one, creates a driven character that sees a greater importance in his son than anything else. That belief tasks him with some difficult choices. How far is too far? Edgerton is the one who must answer those questions, and his casting is a brilliant one. Lucas is the loyal friend who is only recently exposed to Alton but because of him, it means no second guessing from Roy. His commitment to the journey forces him to act, and sometimes with choices one shouldn’t have to make. Lieberher is good, but if one is to quibble, the weakest, suitably cast as the ‘special’ child, but lacking the weight so few young actors can bring. Kirsten Dunst plays Sarah, the boy’s mother, and like the two leads, gives a strong, emotional performance. Driver is, like many of this film’s counterparts, including Peter Coyote in E.T. and Charles Martin Smith in Starman, a sensitive character that recognizes something more in the figure they pursue than the organizations they work for, finding a bond that has profound effect. It’s almost too bad we couldn’t spend more time with him.
Midnight Special might not be for everyone, and its resolution, or at least the conclusion presented, is one that has the largest pill to swallow. But that is the film’s greatest contrivance, and one more should employ. While it presents us with everything we need to know to create an ending, it never paints the picture whole, leaving us with precious gaps in which it is our job to fill in the rest. To recognize that the viewer is the final, essential color to any great image is a remarkable feat by any film maker.