Midnight Special (2016)

Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is at once a thoroughly rewarding science-fiction drama, restrained and smart, but also a little perplexing. It simmers beneath the surface with a taunting premise and hardened characters, never quite finding the genius to push over. And I wanted it to push over, not into drab action or simplistic mayhem, but further on into greatness. As I was watching, I thought this had the potential to one day sit beside my other Great Films, but the more I reflected the less I understood. Who knows — maybe that’s what will win itself a ticket.

The plot is uncomplicated, as are most plots involving runaways and pursuing authorities: Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a boy of about 11, gifted with supernatural powers never explained by the screenplay. He has been abducted by his own father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Now all three are wanted by the FBI and the NSA, and Roy’s face is plastered all over TV sets that in the movies are constantly tuned to the news channel so that the characters — and sometimes the audience — can be kept abreast of current plot developments as they race from city to city.

Joining the fray is a religious cult called The Ranch, spearheaded by the slimy Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who believes Alton is the way to Nirvana, or the afterlife, or heaven. There are references to Biblical scriptures in the dialogue, but the exact denomination of The Ranch is never fully realised. Just as well; its members resort to absolute violence to try and get Alton back. Would murdering Jesus’ would-be abductors in the name of liberation have pardoned the mortal sin of taking another life?

Alton is, of course, not Jesus, unless the Messiah raised Lazarus from the dead by blinding him alive with beams of light from his eyes. The parallel is clear, however. Alton is supremely gifted, and Nichols’ screenplay chooses wisely to present him as a young boy, not an infant, not a moody teenager, not a worrisome adult. He is young but wise, and is always in control of the play. He is at about the same age as Jesus was when he wandered off from his parents to preach to hundreds.

Lieberher, who projected a similar nobility in St. Vincent (2014), has the face of someone older, but in his youth reaches the right pitch for the material. There are moments where he outranks the adults, not by force or wit, but by the pure nature of his being. That’s a tricky feat, considering he’s playing against Michael Shannon, one of the finest actors of his generation.

Midnight Special is a straight-up science-fiction story, and it’s a very engaging one. It respects its audience. It knows what to include and what to leave out. It understands that its premise is simple, so it behaves in complex sociological patterns, underwritten by plain but intelligent dialogue. In a lesser film, we’d have been introduced to Roy, the father; and to Lucas, the loyal friend; and to Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy’s wife; and so on, until we could’ve painted a mental map of the movie’s family tree. We’d have been told details to fill out the waistline of the plot. Not here. Here we are left to fend for ourselves, and sometimes we may not see the entire picture the way Nichols intended us to. But that’s his point. Why, for example, if he is what he says he is, does Alton have parents that are normal? Are they also adoptive, like Calvin? Is there an adoption agency out there giving false recommendations?

I cannot say much more without ruining the movie’s climax, so I will conclude with a few thoughts on why I felt this movie could’ve been better served. I understand that it is one big game of cat-and-mouse, and that no one makes better chasers than the US government, but boy did the violence and guns sit uneasily with me. It’s not that violence upsets me. It’s that Midnight Special doesn’t need it. Like Nichols’ earlier film Mud (2012), the tightly woven drama feels the only way it can release itself is through gunfire and explosions and angry soldiers. What if, for once, the US government found a diplomatic solution to everyone’s problems?

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