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Film Review: Midnight Special

Midnight Special (2016; Directed by Jeff Nichols)

For all of the ways that Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is inherently Spielbergian – in its essentials, the film is E.T. except that the boy and the alien are one and the same – it manifests a vision all its own. It represents a speculative metaphor for multiple facets of the American condition, but presents its sci-fi premise with such clear-eyed conviction that it’s worth questioning if it’s a metaphor at all. What it is, unquestionably, is quietly, subtly indelible.

Nichols once again teams with Michael Shannon, so still and intense in the director’s remarkable and similarly-pitched Take Shelter. Shannon is Roy Tomlin, who opens Midnight Special on the run from the law in Texas. He’s taken his son Alton (the amazing Jaedan Lieberher) and is moving eastwards with the help of old friend and state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). This is no simple overreaction to a traditional custody dispute, however: it emerges that Roy has taken Alton from the clutches of a Christian cult, referred to only as “the Ranch”, to which he himself once belonged, whose commanding patriarch (Sam Shepard) took Alton from him in turn to serve as a mysterious but revered prophet to his flock.

Alton is certainly no ordinary boy. Roy and Lucas only travel with him at night, and even then with an extreme caution over and above their fugitive status: he wears swim goggles while awake and industrial earmuffs while sleeping, which he does during the day with cardboard taped over the windows of the motels and safehouses they stop at on the road. He’s treated with the care of a nuclear warhead, except when he’s inexplicably, carelessly left alone, frequently leading to inadvertent (or perhaps not) destruction. Nichols reveals Alton’s special nature by increments, making these precautions clearer, establishing why the cult had made him into its oracle of revelation, and attracting the keen interest of the U.S. government, as represented by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Roy, Alton, and Lucas remain a step ahead of not only the authorities but also of two unassuming-looking fixers dispatched on their trail by the lead preacher from the Ranch to retrieve the boy prophet (one of them, played by Bill Camp, mutters wearily before a shakedown for information that he is a licensed electrician in two states, a modest tradesman’s twist on the old standby “I’m getting too old for this” line). Rendezvousing along the way with Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), the ragtag fugitives are on a quest to reach a remote location roughly in the marshes of the Florida Panhandle, the coordinates of which were “received” by Alton, by a specific date. What they will find there is beyond any of them, even Alton himself.

At the risk of making an unflattering comparison, Midnight Special is reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s work in certain ways, though not in terms of any handcuffing reliance on twists and revelations. Although in terms of Nichols’ success in crafting a compelling, stiff-lipped, psychologically realistic narrative of American rural life semi-symbolically infused with the extraterrestrial/supernatural, perhaps it’s more accurate to call it the film that Shyamalan wishes he could make. It’s not for the sake of spoilers, therefore, that I am hesitant to say much more about Alton’s special abilities, other than that they involve light, radio waves, and other ephemeral static frequencies of human civilization. It’s more out of hushed respect for Nichols’ visualization and contextualization of those abilities that it feels wrong to delineate them too fully.

What can (and should) be delineated more fully is how Nichols employs the destabilizing uncertainty engendered by such speculative elements to explore a similar sense of destabilizing uncertainty in contemporary America. Take Shelter cast Shannon as a simple man oppressed by visions of an apocalyptic nightmare who seeks to protect his family at any cost. It functioned as an entwined parable of diminished masculine agency and War on Terror siege mentality of surprising depth and power, and concluded with a stunning moment that suggested that our worst, most ragingly paranoid fears might be real.

Midnight Special throbs with the currents of political and social anxieties: fundamentalist religion, child abduction, police violence, security state surveillance, and the looming spectre of imminent catastrophe. This might sound like fodder for Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention nomination acceptance speech, but the film’s politics, such as they are, have no partisan or even ideological dimensions. The overbearing intentions of Roy, the government, and even the cult towards Alton are all treated with fundamental fairness, perhaps even equivalence, by Nichols; they are all of them reasonable approaches to a boy so remarkably special, who signifies something very deep and vital to all opposing forces. The eventual victor in the struggle is nominally the faction with the overwhelming share of power and resources. But that faction’s victory is pyrrhic and incomplete because it cannot comprehend, let alone possess, the object of fear and desire. The object has passed irrevocably beyond its reach, beyond the reach of any of them.

The use of such generalized terms in analyzing Midnight Special is meant to suggest that the object, which is Alton, is a metaphorical stand-in for some decisive element in American society and politics. Power, morality, honour, the future; what he might mean is uncertain (heck, Alton might be taxes!). But like Take Shelter (and like a lot of art), Midnight Special summons images that invoke an interwoven series of politically- and socially-charged feelings and impressions about American life at this moment. If the vaguely anachronistic Midnight Special, with its dark panelled rooms, old-model cars, pay phones, superhero comics read by flashlight, and shirts with top buttons done up, does not overtly look like a film of the moment, that may be by design (and not just in the interest of homage to Spielberg’s early classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Nichols, a Southerner, sets his characters’ quest in the Gulf Coast states, and pulls back to a shot from atmospheric low orbit during the climax to show the radius of Alton’s dome-like dimensional portal (or whatever it is) covering much of the South. What emerges from it, astonishing Alton’s circle of protectors as well as various denizens of the long-depressed South at truck stops and in box-store parking lots, are towering city-of-the-future structures whose pinnacles seem to scrape the clouds. It’s a stock visual promise of a utopian future common to science fiction, a projection of a world that Americans were once (more than once, really) certain would soon belong to them, and to which they would belong in turn. For a whole host of reasons that Midnight Special summons like stubborn poltergeists (fanatical superstitious faith, self-centered individual fulfillment, centralized state authority), that promise has gone unfulfilled, particularly in the South. Jeff Nichols, an emerging genre auteur of great skill and sincerity, makes this point as clear as day with his striking visual juxtaposition of a shimmering future vision among the wide yet narrow American mundanity.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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