Midnight Special is the most recent offering from Jeff Nichols who brought us such delights as Mud and Take Shelter. Starring Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver, this film examines the intricacies of the media, faith and widespread panic in a wholly cinematic and beautiful way with an epic twist of science fiction which would get the Carl Sagan seal of approval.
This ambitious drama doesn’t seek to answer all the questions it asks and it is left frustratingly open ended. However, that ambiguity and mysterious nature is an overarching theme throughout. No one really knows what’s going on, us included, and that only adds to the overall intrigue of the story. We learn that a young boy, Alton Meyer, has been abducted from a ranch in Texas. This ranch is suspiciously culty and the man in charge talks about everyone who lives there as his children, Alton included. Alton is not his child and his real father, Roy (Shannon), has busted him out of the ranch and is on the run with his friend Lucas in tow. Alton has some inexplicable powers, he can speak in tongues, he can recite satellite codes, he can make meteor showers happen and he emits a strong white light from his eyes when his goggles are removed. When learning of these powers, the ranch thought he was some kind of gift from God and when the FBI learn that he knows the satellite codes, they think he is a weapon. Alton has told Roy where he needs to take him and the closer they get the weaker Alton becomes, with is life in serious danger and the FBI hot on their tails it’s a race against time to get Alton to where he needs to be. They pick his mother Sarah (Dunst) up along the way who escaped the ranch years earlier, as she accompanies him on his journey to where he needs to go, guarding and guiding him. But where is he going? What is going to be there when he gets there?
This story presents some interesting central conflicts. There is Alton at the middle, the boy with some strange powers that no one can explain. His father, unquestioning in nature, does everything he can to get him what he needs and Lucas, after seeing what the boy can do, follows suit. Sarah, his mother, acts only as a mother can, with care and love for her son. These three people have only one thing in mind which is to get Alton to where he needs to be, not knowing what is going to happen when they get there. The FBI believe that Alton is a weapon of some sort and his powers could be harnessed for their own gain, one of their Agents, Paul Sevier (Driver) is assigned to learn who or what Alton is. Sevier, as he learns more about Alton and what he can do, starts to think like Roy, Sarah and Lucas and tries to help him. In addition there is the ranch and the organised religion therein. Without making the people at the ranch seem like irrational crazies, like most cults are portrayed, and tastefully shows how much the people living on the ranch have come to depend on Alton and the faith that they have in him. With him gone, they are lost and bemused. We come to learn that Alton is not of this world and that he is from somewhere else, this science fiction element of his story, coupled with undertones of unquestioning faith is reminiscent of Contact in that there is an acknowledgement that they two things exist harmoniously together, rather than going for one over the other. Nichols has favoured this kind of theme in his films in the past, most notable Take Shelter when a man believes his dreams are warning him of a devastating storm. Having that trust in yourself, following your human instinct and your gut is something that has been prevalent in most of Nichols’ films to date.
Jeff Nichols has always made beautiful films, his setting of small town America is typical of his style and tapping into this small town mentality is key to this film’s story. As public hysteria broadens and strengthens, the chase for Alton becomes national news and before long the Armed Forces are involved, the Government has the fingers in the pot and the whole country is watching the events unfold. This idea that mass media contributes to the spreading of fear amongst society is even more ubiquitous now than ever, one person’s ideas can be twisted and contorted in order for it to spread, reliance on word of mouth or unreliable news sources contribute to the spread of false information and panic to occur amongst the people.
Without using huge explosions, loads of special effects and high profile actors, Nichols has managed to make a film that is stylish, original and intelligent. This story in the hands of someone like Michael Bay would have been an entirely different kettle of fish. Nichols is unique in his style and he has an amazing relationship with Michael Shannon that the two of them are able to make amazing moments happen on screen. This is a wonderful and intriguing film whose final moments will leave you breathless.
As the traditional folk song says, “Let the Midnight Special shine an ever-loving light on me.”