"They Will Race and Stumble and Crawl and Curse...and Finally, They Will Join You in the Sun." ("Better Lose the Bed-Sheet")
Maybe this is the issue: I did a search for images from Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols' new film, and an article caught my eye with the questioning headline: "Does Midnight Special Live Up to its Spielberg Roots?" (The answer, if you care, is the definitive and "useful""Yes and No."). Well, as is usually the case in this Age of Useless Click-Bait, they had me at the headline. I wasn't going to read the article because the opening already let me know that it was the work of an idiot.
Midnight Special might remind you of Spielberg—but not in the images it conveys or the pacing or its attitude or any sort of sense of wonder or anything else other than basic subject matter, and even then it's way off-base. But, it is science-fiction-y, so (*duh*) it must be like Spielberg.* It might remind you (as it did me) of the Superman mythos—Warners produced it—in fact, this is Nichols' first studio-produced movie—and they're not too subtle about the poster imagery there—but it's un-branded to the point that it's like M. Night Shymalan's Unbreakable, where it's just the core-story without all the baggage.™
Or, God forbid, it might remind you of something other than a movie. Like, maybe, a book, or a myth or, I don't know, the freaking Christ story?
Because that's the thing about Jeff Nichols. As opposed to a director like (let's pick a name out of a hat) Spielberg, Nichols makes parables for the modern age. In fact, they'd fit right in with a Bible study class...that is, a Bible study class that isn't concerned with pushing God. Because even though God may not show up in Nichols' movies, faith—and Big Faith, at that—does.
And where Take Shelter was Old Testament, Midnight Special is the New.
Two men and a boy are driving the back-roads at night with the headlights turned off in their car (the driver using night-vision goggles to see) so as not to be seen. There is an amber alert out for the 8-year old (Jaeden Lieberher), and a description of the man suspected of abducting him, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), who his father. Driving is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), whose relationship with them is not known, initially, but will be revealed later in the movie. They're on the run from The Ranch, a religious organization run by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), that has evidently had control of Roy and the boy, named Alton Meyer, for the last four years. The defection by Alton and Roy has just been found out, and the group holds one of their night-time communal meetings, which has been preceded by Calvin instructing two cult members (Bill Camp and Scott Haze) that Alton must be found in four days. Time is of the essence.
But, that amber alert has come from another source, not the cult. That midnight meeting at The Ranch is interrupted by the FBI, who walk in, fully armed, stop the sermon, and announce that everybody—including Calvin—are going to be loaded onto school-buses and questioned. The questions are about Alton—what do you know and when did you know it—until Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) walks in. He's with the NSA and his questions are more specific—there are a series of numbers that Calvin has been using as sacred text and they came from Alton. "How did an 8 year old boy get this information?" "He'd have fits...speak in tongues...in foreign languages and languages we don't know. His words are the words of the Lord." "Or the federal government," says Sevier matter-of-factly.
Just what Alton is capable of isn't seen until Lucas and Roy drive into a truck-stop to supply up and make a phone-call. Alton has been told to stay in the car, But a light in the sky draws his attention and he wanders out in the darkness and stares into the sky. By the time, Roy gets to him and scolds him for disobeying, Alton, who is eerily calm, apologizes, as the sky starts to light up with orange streaks that get closer, and closer, and then begin to explode around them. The three run to the truck and swerve back onto the highway. "They were watching me," is all Alton says.
The next day, the FBI, still a day late/dollar short, helicopters onto the scene of the destruction; one of our satellites is missing, one of our spy satellites designed to detect thermonuclear events has fallen out of the sky, leaving a debris field of sixty miles, something unprecedented over land. Sevier can only look at the destruction and wonder: what are they dealing with here?
What, indeed? Throughout the course of the film, we will see this calmly mature 8-year old do some incredible things, not the least of which is have many adults in thrall to him—he'll speak in tongues, pull out radio transmissions from the sky and repeat them as they're happening, but the most visually arresting, and the reason why he perpetually wears tinted blue goggles—and Lucas tapes cardboard over any windows wherever they are—is the weird emanation that comes from his eyes, like an incandescent heat-vision that occurs when he locks eyes with another human being, the sensation for them producing a feeling of euphoria and peace. That may be what the subject is feeling, but around the two in communion, the world is shaking, seemingly to its core, exploding lights, shattering windows, and creating deep cracks in walls. This kid is "an other," born of human parents (Kirsten Dunst plays his mother, and they're who Roy, Lucas and Alton are gravitating to), but the kid with power is a threat to those in power, and controlling him is their interest.
Their interest is of no concern to Alton. "They think you're a weapon." Sevier says to Alton when he finally is able to confront him (and Driver's tentative approach to him is just one of the wonderful touches he brings to the role). "I'm not" is Alton's simple reply. "The Ranch thinks you're their savior." "I'm none of those things," the boy says.
All well and good, for him and the story. But, for anyone with a background in anything more than Spielberg movies, it's a modern dress-modern tech version of the Christ story with a rather depressing answer to "What Would Jesus Do?:" These days he'd have no other choice but to flee...doesn't matter who he knows or Who he's related to. What part of the other early Christ story that hasn't been suppressed paints a picture of his parents avoiding authorities and keeping "The Kid" under wraps. And also with Midnight Special.
It is the human side of that story that has always fascinated me, the melding of religious faith and parental obligation. You have to have a kid who's really "wrong" to look on them as anything less than a miracle.** Every child is an object of worship in their parents' eyes. How much more is that devotion when that child is "special needs" (in all meanings of that term) and the parent is asked to perform miracles in order to see that child make its own. How many parents can share Roy's confession that "the only thing I ever believed in was Alton," and realize that, even if they are short, you still spend a lot of your time on your knees before them.
That's what I like so much about Midnight Special—its focus on the completely relatable parental devotion that has its own fervor, and its own "ever-lovin' light."
*That's the problem with pigeon-holing: this guy's going to ask if your film lives up to its "Spielberg roots" if it's science fiction or about the Holocaust or rampaging animals or historical figures. In which case, why make a bloody movie, if the only thing Johnny One-Note can compare it to is Spielberg?
** I have an actor-friend who was very self-actualized and when his first child was born said "I used to think I was the President of the United States. Now, I realize I'm just the Secret Service." Succinctly, perfectly, and humbly put.