dir: Jeff Nichols
Strange yet familiar. That can be a potent combination. It can also be a boring one that fails to elicit any feelings, positive or negative.
Midnight Special is strange, certainly, as is any flick in which you have bug-eyed Michael Shannon in any role. He brings the weird to virtually any flick he’s in, no matter how large or small the role. He’s just that kind of guy. But the real ‘twist’ here is that Michael Shannon’s character isn’t the villain, or some random paranoid lunatic screaming about the doom that awaits us all, but a caring father trying to protect his special-needs son from this harsh and uncaring world.
Well, actually, as in many of these situations, it’s sometimes the world that needs to be protected from them.
This isn’t the origin story for some superhero kid, but it almost plays out like it should be. It’s very much all mysterious in the beginning. Two grunting guys in a car with a kid along for the ride drive recklessly through the night getting away from something or towards something else. We know the cops are after them, but we don’t know why.
We know there’s a cult / church / group of people dressed like sisterwives from a Mormon polygamist compound who are after the kid, but they don’t worship the prophet Joseph Smith or the Angel Moroni; they worship the boy. I had the clear impression that they might have been that kind of exploitative cult even before him, but that once the boy came along, their leader (Sam Shepherd, chilling as always) changed his sermons around a bit and they continued along like they’d always been worshipping Jeebus / Cthulu / L. Ron Hubbard / the boy.
The boy himself. He has a name, you know. Well, what is it again? Oh yeah, it was some Texan kind of name, like Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) or Alston or something like that. It doesn’t sound like the name of a superhero, but what do I know.
He wears blue goggles. He’s very pale. He can’t go in sunlight. The windows of the motels they stay in have to be sealed with cardboard in order to protect him.
Sounds like a vampire to me. Kill it! Kill the vampire child!
Nah, he’s something far worse. He’s a something who can do all sorts of… things, plot convenient things. Things involving technology. Scary things. There’s also this thing he does with light shooting out of his eyes that’s pretty nifty.
Everyone wants a piece of him. The cult wants him because of some doomsday apocalyptic thing they think is coming in a few days time. The government want him because… they think he’s some superpowered mutant who can somehow hack their secret communications, which is why they dispatch a goon from the NSA who looks suspiciously like Kylo Ren from The Force Awakens (Adam Driver, not playing evil this time, well, less evil than usual). His surname is suspiciously, as well, on the nose. Sevier? Sounds awfully close to Saviour. Or maybe Savour, or maybe Savoir Faire? C’est magnifique! I could go on with this, but it could end up sounding like the rantings of a schizophrenic, and I wouldn’t want that, would I…
Well, the truth is, a lot of this does come across as the ravings and rantings of a paranoid schizophrenic. It’s not the first time a Jeff Nichols script has played out along these lines. Take Shelter, again with Michael Shannon in a lead role, had a guy acting like the most paranoid schizophrenic ever who is convinced that something terrible is going to happen no matter how many people tell him he’s wrong, who basically acts like a lunatic for most of the flick, and who is (somehow) vindicated by the ending, which bodes well for the “I told you so” contingent, but not so grand for the rest of us..
Midnight Special has a scenario where a kid can ‘hear’ secret messages from spy satellites, is literally being chased by the government and a shady cult, who has access to ‘another’ realm of existence and perception above and beyond what the rest of us boring regular people have access to, and they don’t end up being the delusions and hallucinations of a mentally ill person.
The thing is, though, I know people in this, the boring real world, who have told me remarkably similar stories about their own lives and perceptions, and they aren’t characters in a movie, they’re not Michael Shannon, the government’s not actually after them, but they’re convinced it’s all true anyway, especially when they go off their meds.
I guess it’s neither here nor there. Whether the story came from the mind of a person dealing with schizophrenia or not is irrelevant in terms of whether it works as a film or not. And it does. It is a tense and paranoid kind of film, and that certainly helps maintain a certain mood throughout the flick. Whatever else it’s about, it is predominately meant to be about a father and mother (Kirsten Dunst comes along a bit later in the proceedings) willing to do whatever they can to protect their son.
And then there’s also the guy sent by the cult (Bill Camp) who’s reluctant but willing to do all sorts of terrible things in order to get the kid back. Much of what he does occurs off-screen, but it is strongly implied that this paunchy middle-aged guy who looks like he should be preparing your next tax return is mangling people in order to find Alton.
We are strongly given to believe that before this particular cross-country road movie commenced, both parents suffered great loss when their son was taken away from them. They’re neither good nor bad people, they’re just parents whose kid gets appropriated for selfish reasons. Kinda like a Stolen Generation of one.
Then, of course, it becomes a question of how much they’re prepared to do in order to protect him. Though he’s no hardened crim, it’s clear that daddy Roy is more than happy to kill in order to protect Alton; in order to get Alton where he needs to go, whatever the hell that means. That is, I guess, an admirable trait in a parent(?) I guess even I’d like to hope that I’d do anything to protect my family, but I would hardly harbour a strong desire for the world to generate the kind of scenario necessary to test the theory out.
Roy seems a little too keen to force scenarios to their worst case when it doesn’t seem entirely necessary. So it’s a good thing he has an old friend along called Lucas (Joel Edgerton, yeah, THAT Joel Edgerton, Australia’s Own etc etc) to keep him chilled out.
Well, not really, but Lucas is a bit more rational about things, not having that killer parental instinct in play (though he has a gun, which is the next best thing). For him this isn’t a crusade, this isn’t love, this isn’t a compulsion or a love of danger or violence. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure I have any idea
What all of this leads to is not a standard Spielbergian ending / scenario. Much was made in reviews that this was like a homage / ripoff of earlier works by that particular schmaltzmeister, but I don’t see it. This is cool, cold, analytical, non-forthcoming, non-hand holding, and non-explanatory. Mostly people speak in flat monotones. Emotions would be a waste if they were expressed. Even the mother, brought in about halfway through, doesn’t so much emote as she does more sit around looking sad/pained/gassy.
The kid’s okay. He’s kind of alien but a bit chirpy, at certain points, which is in direct contrast to the super-serious adults. I can’t really make sense of what he is or what is really going on with the kid, because the vast range of things that happen around him are never set out. He just does stuff that no-one else can do. Why? Because. Are there any limits? Who knows. Where’s he trying to go? Somewhere that seems to co-exist with our own world, but on a different plane of existence, or it’s invisible or something.
What’s it all mean in the end? If we had an enjoyable enough trip down the road, does the end destination matter? Do we need a comprehensive explanation of what it all meant for it to be satisfying?
I’m not sure it would have worked, in terms of how everything went previous, and the tone of the flick, but something a bit more tangible might have helped. For all I know the kid was taken away by aliens / ghosts / pixies / ice cream van drivers, and watching it all the way to the end still leaves me none the wiser as to what the hell went on.
As it is, this is a flick that really seemed to connect with critics and with absolutely no-one else. The performances are solid, but unremarkable like functional furniture. Lucas is solid as the friend with no idea what he’s gotten into in a plot more fantastical than practical. Alton’s a freaky kid. The world is stranger and bigger than we thought.
And that’s it? Well, I guess that will have to do.
7 times I think all the hipsters should start wearing blue goggles out and about out of 10, because it’s such a good look.
“You don't have to worry about me.”
- “I like worrying about you.”
“You don't have to anymore.”
- “I'll always worry about you Alton. That's the deal.” – bloody parenthood in a nutshell – Midnight Special