Midnight Special (2016): A Story of Parenthood

Midnight_Special_(film)_poster

“These are words of the Lord…or the federal government.”

Derek Webb has a song called “Spirit.” For anyone with a religious upbringing, it might conjure up the “Holy Ghost” — the Helper meant to fill up Christian faithful as they worship God in their sanctuaries.

Webb is banking on these presuppositions when he turns the tables. Because of course, he’s talking about alcohol, and the gathering — the sanctuary he’s worshipping in — is a bar.

Watching Jef Nichols Midnight Special relates to this example for one very simple reason. It has the environment, even the rhetoric or liturgy many might recall from Sunday church services, and yet it’s been given an entirely new context. It suggests what a nefarious and deceptive thing cults and other dubious institutions might be by taking something so familiar and giving it their own tilt.

In this case, “The Ranch” is such a consortium of people; they feel like Luddites or Amish but given a bad name. Their head minister is Sam Shepard. His presence alone brings with it a bevy of connotations and previous traditions. Of course, he was famously featured in Terrence Malick’s naturalistic masterwork Days of Heaven. Shepard also helped conceive of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, another catalyzing portrait of the near-mystical American mythos.

At least for me, there’s this implicit hope Midnight Special might be out to do much the same, having received the torch from its predecessors and then preparing to pass it on. Also because Jeff Nichols feels like one of the modern chroniclers of Middle America steeped in these same deep traditions of the past.

After all, we open in a roadside hotel room with an amber alert playing on the television. A little boy has been kidnapped and taken by two fugitives. Nichols uses these talking heads throughout the movie to do much of the expositional heavy lifting for him. Just about everything else he leaves oblique, and he seems satisfied with the overall vagueness.

In fact, the plot keeps the details purposefully obscured. Whether they are too obscured might be up for contention. All we know is this boy is being sought by a myriad of parties. He is in the care of a pair of fugitives with a conscience; it provides an inkling of who is really on the side of virtue in this muddled world.

Their names are Roy (Michael Shannon) and his faithful buddy Lucas (Joel Egerton). They can be characterized by their slow-walking, slow-talking demeanors — almost painfully so, but, again, maybe that’s the point. It’s excruciating to watch them.

They’re the ones being tracked by not only all manner of government agencies but members of the same cult that they used to be associated with. Their young charge is the prized possession of “The Ranch,” functioning as their presumed Messiah. March 6th is when they believe Judgment will come once and for all, and the day is fast approaching.

Meanwhile, the FBI swoops in on one of the religious commune’s meetings, only to clear the premises entirely. They conduct their own investigations of this extraordinary young boy, Alton, who seems to have transmitted government secrets. The NSA joins them in their search represented by a nerdy numbers-cruncher Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

As played by Driver, he feels like a surprisingly average guy and if we are to understand anything about tropes, this is what makes him the key to the story. Because everyone else is clouded by protocol, rules, and regulations. The fact he is brilliant but also a lot like you and me, gives him the tools to understand other people and connect with them.

In some ways, they play on analogous themes to Arrival — simply wanting to understand those who are different than us. Leading with curiosity instead of fear. But he’s also a character who seems to function outside of everyone else in society. Rather like Truffaut in Close Encounters. It  almost feels like he has a higher calling altogether superseding convention.

To go with these other themes is a central idea of parenthood reminiscent of other stories bursting with all sorts of religious archetypes in their own right. Abraham loving his son dearly and yet being willing to give him up. Mary realizing her son was made for something far more than a temporal world. Even the Christian God who is acknowledged as giving up his only son for the sake of the entire world.

Roy is just a simple sort of fellow but he’s devoted to this boy believing his son has a purpose if only he can be protected. As Lucas muses, “Good people die every day believing in things.” Kirsten Dunst is the mentally exhausted mother who has been starved of the opportunity to love her son. It’s telling to watch her get him back only to struggle with the impending conclusion of the arc.

These elements are the most provocative of what the film has to offer, although they feel slightly underexplored in favor of a far more conventional Spielbergian homage. These are the tried and true even overfamiliar rhythms of sci-fi seen through the lens of Nichols. From the child-like perspective down to the government involvement, it’s a tale fit to the scale of an E.T. or Close Encounters.

Even as the performances of Midnight Special feel head and shoulders above Super 8, the other film somehow captures a bit more of the nostalgia and, dare I say, the childhood wonder of the Spielberg films — at least until Midnight Special‘s very last moments. Here it exterts itself as a bleak, bare-boned reimagination of the genre.

At the end of the day, maybe Jeff Nichols wasn’t entirely interested in any of these things. If anything, they all serve as part of his meditation on parenthood. Because when you take away all the dressings — the religious undertones and layerings of science fiction — what you’re left with is a fairly straightforward narrative.

It’s about knowing your child is special and wanting to protect them and hold on while slowly coming to grips with reality. You cannot always be there. You cannot always keep them from being hurt. And sometimes you have to let them go. Sometimes that’s the most loving thing you can do.

I’m still trying to decide if Midnight Special does an adequate job articulating all its things or if it’s merely me projecting my thoughts and feelings onto it. They might be one and the same. Regardless, I wasn’t fully satiated by Midnight Special, but does that really matter? Perhaps it is a litmus test of whether or not we have the true perspective to appreciate it. Who’s to say I’m not already too jaded to latch onto what it has to offer. I’ll let you be the judge.

3.5/5 Stars

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