“Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me.” So go the lyrics of the folk song from which Jeff Nichols took the title of his fourth feature, Midnight Special. The refrain is fitting, as Nichols’ film is one about devotion. It’s also a pulsating science fiction thriller that’s ultimately about an awful lot of things – as much as it might hold back from making them explicit – but at its heart is devotion. The word conjures up images of family and of faith and they are the motivators to the conflict that spawns the film’s high concept premise. They’re also the guy ropes that keep Nichols’ most explicitly genre picture yet from launching into stratospheric fantasy at the cost of his trademark humanity.
Characters have always been key to the Arkansan’s slow-burning narratives even when he’s let crime or psychological thriller genres infringe on their screentime. Midnight Special is his first studio film (made for Warner Bros.) and it certainly wears its science fiction on its sleeve, but it is component of the overarching mystery, rather than a driving narrative force. That comes from Roy, played by Nichols regular Michael Shannon, who begins the film holed up in a motel room with his accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) accused of kidnapping Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton is actually his son and has been liberated from ‘The Ranch’, the home of a religious cult who believed the boy to be something akin to their messiah. There’s reason enough for that as Alton – permanently strapped into blue goggles with his nose in the kinds of comic books that people like him usually appear in – is a unique boy. However, the whys and wherefores are of less importance here; they fuel an uncanny sense of exaltation.
Alton also inspires conviction in cult leader Calvin (Sam Shepard) and his brethren; it provokes unexplainable commitment from Lucas; but it means nothing to Roy and Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Their devotion has nothing to do with their son’s supernatural prominence, it is the even greater bond of parents to their child. Nichols was a new father when he wrote Midnight Special and it’s plain to see. There’s much talk of the film being Spielbergian, but in some ways that does is disservice to Nichols’ own modus operandi which is already taking shape. Masculinity, patriarchal duty and fatherhood are themes that he returns to repeatedly and they once again dominate here. The timeline of a father provides the film with its pacing and structure, even while it needs to maintain the momentum of its chase.
Some critics have felt that a sequence two thirds of the way through, in which Roy and Alton share a powerful moment, is the film’s crescendo but it is their relationship’s apex rather than the narrative’s. As this ramshackle family wend their way across the southern United States to what the cult believe is some form of The Rapture, the fears of losing one’s child and the eventual inevitability of such a time etch the spectacular conclusion with personal transcendence. The slow burn lead-up may not be to all tastes, but if you can tune in to its broadcast frequency Midnight Special will shine its light on you too.
Read our interview with Jeff Nichols here.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson