Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, “Midnight Special” is not as good as “Mud”, though it may be muddier. We are dropped into a dark scene almost “in medias res”. We hear before we see, like in so many 2016 films. The radio is coughing up insurance ads in Central Texas when we are given “breaking news”. An Amber alert is out. An eight-year-old boy has been abducted from a religious sect. We see a hulking man and his companion with the boy. We fear the worse until the boy wraps his arms lovingly around the neck of his captor, now possibly his savior. Dibs and dabs of background are slowly revealed throughout this drama-sci-fi, leaving more questions than answers. How did this special boy get among us? We are told only that “they” have been watching for a long time.
Sam Shepherd plays Calvin Meyer, the boys adopted father and patriarch of “The Ranch”. Somehow his sermons to his congregation have decrypted U.S. Government security codes, and now the FBI is more than concerned. Writer and director ( often not a good thing) Nichols bandies the action back and forth between the car rides and safe houses of the birth father ( Michael Shannon) and the FBI interrogations of the sect. The boy, Alton, ( Jaeden Lieberher ) has powers: satellites fall from the sky, electronic grids are blown, and generators fail as the earth shakes. The Ranch members believe if he is with them that they will be saved. The Apocalypse even has a date.
Unlike more profound sci-fi writing like that of Mary Russell Doria, Nichols does not give much to the plot. His theme that there may be a better world with ever-loving light reminds me of the folk song, named after a train ” The Midnight Special” with its chorus ” shine your ever-loving light on me.” The glowing eyes of Alton must give images of this world for removing his goggles seems to be a temptation one compatriot can not resist.
When guns are used in this film, no one dies. Does that give a new meaning to “Saturday night special”? I’d like to think so. Even when protecting a territory police can only shoot when fired upon. This is a film about fathers, sons, mothers ,friends and sacrifice and loss at its heart. The dialogue is sparse, but the faces of the actors register familiar emotions. Kristen Dunst as Alton’s birth-mother, Sarah, does an exceptional job of showing hope for tomorrow. Much like in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Berneice Bobs Her Hair”, Dunst finds glee in cutting her corded braid. Is her son in a better place ? His bruised eyes , bleeding ears , shortness of breath, and kryptonite questions lead us to an imaginative “yes”.
Joel Edgerton plays a likeable friend and sheriff, Lucas. We all need trusting and true loyalty like he displays. Adam Driver, likewise, plays a believer’s part to the hilt. As a savvy scientist, he asks if he can come with the boy, too.
See this film to learn about heat wounds, debris fields and panicking parents. Smirk at childhood development counsellors and multi-paged questionnaires, but bask in the light of Alton’s ,” I am not a weapon; I am not a savior.” But, what is he ?
Nichols doles out a little bit of candy, one piece at a time. Some throwbacks to E.T. in the angelic demeanor of our otherworldly boy. Sky prisms and boy speaking in tongues not as interesting as the tension of the chase. Michael Shannon registers fatherly and protective emotions as Roy Tomlin. We just don’t get any insight to how muddy and burdensome those sect contracts are. I had trouble identifying with the characters~ but then letting go does not come easily for me.
Favorite lines. ” Stick to the plan”. ” I am an electrician. What do I know of these things.” ” You would have made a nice family.” ” Back on the road, asshole.” ” He needs to know what is real.”