Film Review: “Midnight Special”, (2016)

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Credit: Collider.com

If you’re after a film that will make you think (sometimes to maddening levels) then this other-worldly drama is for you.

Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special follows the story of a father, Roy (Michael Shannon) that kidnaps his son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher) from the clutches of a cult in order to take him to a specific location on a certain date. Pursued by the cult henchmen and the authorities (including Paul, an analyst investigating the boy’s powers, played by Adam Driver), along for the ride is his friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and the kid’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst).

The performances across the board are all quite good. Michael Shannon is good in pretty much everything he stars in, and it was nice to see Adam Driver in a very different role after his turn as Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. Kirsten Dunst does pretty well with what she has, and Joel Edgerton suffices as Ray’s friend. The film is well shot and music by David Wingo is memorable. But what stands out most is that Midnight Special is one of those movies that comes along and births much discussion – discussion that is better than the film itself. The film is not straightforward; leaving more questions than answers.

Belief is a very strong theme throughout the film. There are three kind of strands of thinking about belief. Firstly, the cult group ‘The Ranch’ used the boy for the rapture and ecstasy of glimpses into another realm, with nefarious cult leaders lurking in the background, stockpiling weapons and referring to the boy as ‘the Lord’. The Ranch have this belief that the boy will take them away on a specific date to another place, like most cults do. Then Alton’s parents, Roy and Sarah believe in the special nature of the boy and his need to get to the specific location on a specific date and are determined, even to the point of death, to get him there.

Lucas and Paul’s belief in Alton develops gradually. Lucas is thrown into situations where the boy’s powers are displayed, but he hasn’t a clue what is going on. Both he and Paul start out as sceptics, but just believe in Alton when he addresses each personally, through something fantastic, or tells them he isn’t from their realm. You can kind of follow this logic, but the ultimate problem for me was when Alton finally gets to the desired location – what is in it for those that got him there? The Ranch was slightly more rational in their approach – they found a saviour to help them escape this world into a better place. And maybe for Roy and Sarah, they see that Alton needed to get there and they did it out of love by returning him ‘home’, even though they struggled with the idea of him leaving. But all of this effort to protect Alton and get him to his destination should amount to something more, right? Something deeper or redemptive? Also, what if the creatures that examine us are not good like Alton, and may want to harm? The reasoning behind the government officials may be sound.

The other interesting aspect of this film is how it deals with different realms. When Alton creates the energy-field-bubble-thing, the other realm’s buildings appear and the creatures themselves appear – they are basically ‘light’ beings, immaterial beings that have apparently been ‘studying us for some time now’. (It’s kind of odd that they needed big, physical structures to inhabit if that is the case). The tension for Alton is that he embodies the dualism of the physical and spiritual realms. The question one has to ask is how is it that Roy and Sarah gave birth to such an unusual kid? The film never explains this mystery, which then makes you wonder why it felt so important to get him back to the other realm, when as I said before: we don’t actually know if that realm is safe. Alton is clearly not; with powers that can even make plant life that he touches wither as his own health falters (not to mention how powerful his reaction is to the sun). Alton’s dualism also makes us ask about how we interact with the earth: does that mean people on earth are only material? Is Alton really what we are, and that we eventually to inhabit a spiritual realm? So many questions!

There’s so much on offer here and there’s other things I haven’t even touched on (such as the connection between Alton’s abilities and his new fascination with comic books), but I would not call Midnight Special a classic. It is certainly a very interesting film, but I’m not sure I’d see it again or that it holds replay value. If you like your films deeply philosophical, and your films not dictating and delivering every aspect of the story to you – then with Midnight Special, you’ll be right at home.

 

Richie Thomas

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