Movie Review - Midnight Special
“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
And with that Yoda quote from The Empire Strikes Back, I feel like I’ve already summed up Midnight Special. [But since when have you ever opted for the short version? – Ed.]
Midnight Special opens up with us learning that a child has been abducted by Michael Shannon’s character. Given the roles Shannon typically plays, this doesn’t seem to be that much of a stretch…but it turns out he’s the good guy here. During the course of the film, we learn that he’s the child’s birth father and he’s trying to keep the child away from the cult that worships him and the government that wants to use him as a weapon in order to get him…well…somewhere. To say where exactly not only plays into spoiler-land, but also betrays the film and Shannon’s character a bit, as he really doesn’t know where he’s going (or does he???)…he’s being led by his son in some regard.
If some of that sounds familiar, well, it should. The plot of the film doesn’t really break any new ground. It’s the themes, character interactions and moments and the ending that really make it stand out as something special and very much worth seeing.
The opening theme is that of a ‘true-believer’…someone that borders on fanaticism. Shannon’s Roy and his friend Lucas definitely seem to fit this description when we start the film with their heavy armament and the wounding of a Texas State Trooper all in the name of Roy’s son Alton. We see this line run through their encounter with a former cult member who provides them shelter for a night…where said cult member takes advantage of the child’s power one last time. When we encounter Alton’s mother, played by Kirsten Dunst (who surprisingly looks very mom-like here…not how we generally see her), this softens some…transitioning to more of a family unit and the themes inherent therein, the strongest of these being the eventual loss of a child with a…shall we say…condition.
The film does a good job of reminding us that these good-ish folks are on the run with several encounters with the forces that are in pursuit…the cult has sent not only two of its own to hunt for Alton but has also set the police on them via reporting the child’s disappearance as a kidnapping. On top of all that, the FBI and NSA have picked up on evidence of Alton’s powers and, given the information that the child is apparently tapping into, want to either use the kid…or liquidate him. [Two dramatic pauses in as many paragraphs? You’re going all Shatner on me here. – Ed.]
It’s here that the larger themes of the story present themselves. Sure, anyone who’s completed Film 101 can point out the family and loss thing from a couple of paragraphs ago. [Um, I seem to recall you never even took the course…something about ‘bullshit humanities’ and ‘make mine science’…if I remember right. – Ed.] Sigh, fine. I felt that there were larger themes at play when we came to the latter half of the movie. The film seems to say that we won’t find the bright, glistening future we all hope for by putting all of our stock in religion or in security…but instead the path to that better place will be lit by our own better instincts, such as those of family and protecting those in need. Our dual antagonistic sides in the film show us each side of this potentially fatal coin.
Let’s start with the cult, since that’s where the film starts. It’s, well, it’s your standard cult that we hear so much about these days: cooped up on a compound or, in this case, a ranch, plenty of guns stashed away for whatever doomsday scenario they associate with what they feel Alton represents and latching on to the coded gibberish that Alton recites from his interception of military transmissions as some sort of gospel. Say what you will, but I found this to be a fair depiction (with perhaps just a hint of satire) of the fundamentalism (no matter the religion) that seems to be popping up these days. As we follow characters associated with this cult on the chase for the boy, we start seeing the problems with this path and how it will not lead to the utopia that the kid is striving to get to…but instead results in an almost self-fulfilling prophecy: most of these cults have their basis in a perceived doomsday…and in the end, doomsday is what they typically receive, both in this film and in real life, by their own hand. We’ll start with the first person to give Alton, Roy and Lucas shelter: former cult member Elden. He starts off seeming like a helpful chap…doing some research, digging up something about ley lines (something I wish the plot would’ve lingered on or explored further) and providing the group shelter and safe haven for a night…er…day…whatever. But then we catch Elden taking advantage of the child’s gifts. Now, you can interpret that in many ways, unfortunately…but each one is pertinent, each one sticks. Can we read it in light of the recent Catholic scandals? You betcha. Can we read it as something deeper though? Perhaps it is in man’s nature that when he’s confronted with a messianic figure, his nature is to use the power of that message or those powers to his own benefit…and not the benefit of everyone. Sure, it’s a cynical thing to say or type or show…but all too often, it proves to be a correct assessment. Then we shift to our two pursuers…one clearly vocalizing that he doesn’t understand why the cult leader has given him this task. Later, as that character’s last vestiges of sensibility try to resurface, we find out why he doesn’t understand, “I’m an electrician…certified in two states.” So, you know, hunting down a kid with shotguns intended to be used for when the father puts up a fuss…and no doubt he well…this isn’t exactly in this guy’s wheelhouse. And yet, his unwavering faith pushes him forward…into a firefight with Roy and Lucas and, eventually, his death at the hands of the other side of this coin…the military.
Nice segue, eh? The military plays a very clichéd role here, that of the ‘we want to understand it so that we can use it’. And given what Alton is capable of doing, intercepting wireless transmissions and codes oh, and bringing down friggin’ satellites with just his goddamn mind…this is not something to be controlled or used by the military/industrial complex…at all. Most of those on this side of the coin are depicted as…well…drones. They do what they do, serve the story, but there really isn’t much to them…no character, no development. (And given my day job, this is SPOT ON…just sayin’.) This serves as a fitting backdrop for one Paul Sevier…our convert, played extremely well by Adam Driver. (BTW, Driver is going to give you a serious “goddamn he looks like Jeff Goldblum” complex. You’ve been warned.) Within the machinations of the military’s hunt for this child, at the center of the wheel we find NSA analyst Sevier, assembling and interpreting the data, putting the pieces together and, eventually, getting his superiors that which they seek, Alton himself. But his interaction with the boy, like with so many others before, alters the course of his life…turning him against his masters…but not in a violent or harmful way. Instead, it’s more a benign enlightening…almost a more eastern concept of the messiah/Buddha-like figure. Sevier falls to his better qualities…his mission to make sure the boy gets to where he needs to be…in essence…compassion.
It’s important to make note of the fact that Midnight Special doesn’t end where you would expect a film like this to…where Alton makes it to his destination, there’s a great revelation and then roll credits. No, Jeff Nichols’ film takes us one step beyond and deals with the repercussions of everyone’s actions. We find Lucas in jail being interrogated by the FBI…only for the special agent in charge to give up on his questions and allowing for a certain NSA analyst to take over. Thus, we’re given a feeling that everything will be okay in some way. We pick up Alton’s mom, Sarah, in a bathroom cutting her own hair with a box of hair dye…taking steps to move on with her life, albeit with an altered identity.
And then there’s Roy.
We find him incarcerated with wires on his head…perhaps some sort of portable electroencephalograph…watching the sunrise. And, if you’re paying attention…for just a brief second…
Well. That would be telling, wouldn’t it?
As I said before, Midnight Special doesn’t do anything particularly new…but it puts a new spin on some older themes as well as shining a new and deeper light on character types we’ve seen before. It’s these thoughtful themes and somewhat ambiguous ending that put this film head and shoulders above much of the more recent sci-fi offerings from Hollywood…and should make it a pretty big blip on your radar. Check it out.