Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
With the blockbusters of today being almost entirely made up of sequels, prequels, adaptations and reboots characterised by massive scale, abundant special effects and action-driven stories, it’s interesting how closely our modern independent movies resemble the blockbusters of 20-30 years ago. When watching Midnight Special for instance the influence of Steven Spielberg was unmistakable. If Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. were to be released today, films that feature original character-driven stories, few (if any) movie stars, and strong but restrained use of special effects, it’d be difficult to imagine them being advertised as blockbusters. The advances in technology over the past few decades means that independent filmmakers like Jeff Nichols now have the means to make these kinds of films. Not only is Midnight Special impressive visually but it is also a smart, intimate story about faith and parenthood.
The film starts off ambiguously with a man called Roy (Michael Shannon) hiding in a hotel room with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). We learn that the boy possesses otherworldly powers and was recently liberated by his father from a religious cult who is now wanted by the government. Roy reveals that he must take his son to a certain place by a specific date despite not knowing why or what will happen. All he knows is that it is a mission of paramount importance. Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) the leader of the FBI investigation into this case learns of the boy’s powers and seeks to learn more of the mystery behind their quest. Along the way Roy enlists Sarah (Kristen Dunst), Alton’s mother, for her help with this endeavour. With only days before this unknown event is supposed to take place, Roy will stop at nothing to protect his son and to help him fulfil his calling whatever it may be.
I was unsure of what to make of this film after seeing it mainly because it is such an ambiguous movie. Although the mystery surrounding Alton’s abilities and quest serves as the dramatic crux of the movie, very few answers are provided. This isn’t necessarily a weakness because sometimes the mystery is the point. The real question is whether the mystery has stimulated you or just left you confused. After seeing how the film ended I was initially left dissatisfied by the lack of an explanation. Even though I saw what happened I still didn’t know what the actual purpose of Alton’s mission was or what was actually accomplished. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I was missing the point. After all one of the vital themes depicted in the movie is faith, an idea that is defined by the unknowable. By asking what Alton’s mission was I might as well be asking what was in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. That’s not what the film is about. This is a film about how people react to that which they don’t understand, the bond between a parent and their child, and the search for meaning and purpose. Such themes are ambiguous and mysterious in nature and whatever answers there are to be found must be discovered by the viewers themselves. That is how faith works.
It is clear that Nichols is putting a lot of faith in his audience as very little is spelled out for them. For example in the opening minutes of the movie it isn’t actually stated that Roy is Alton’s father. It doesn’t need to be because Nichols trusts that we can figure it out ourselves based on their body language. That’s the sign of a good visual storyteller. The imagery in this film is so clear and effective that Nichols is able to escape making use of exposition that might have otherwise stolen away from the mystery. Little is explained and yet so much is felt. It also helps that the performances, particularly Shannon’s, are strong enough that the qualities of the characters are readily apparent through their gestures and expressions. One needs only to see how Roy holds and looks at his son to know that he is going to do everything in his power to keep Alton safe.
The ambiguity and elusiveness of Midnight Special will definitely put some people off; there is no way around that. It is a film that needs to be analysed and questioned in order to be appreciated. It is certainly a strange film as it delves deeply into the supernatural and the unknown. Those who watch Midnight Special looking for straight answers are not going to find them because it isn’t that kind of film. It is a contemplative exploration of mysterious themes that is supposed to raise unanswerable questions. The beauty is in the mystery itself. I can certainly say that this film has stimulated me on an intellectual level, but I did also feel a little underwhelmed on an emotional level. Although I remember the characters and did follow them all the way through, I never felt like I really got to know them or was able to form an attachment with them in the way that I did with Spielberg’s films. Still Midnight Special is an engaging, thoughtful film that stirs the imagination and stimulates the mind.