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

Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

eternalsunshine1In truth, I always thought this film had a well-suited title for its material. It was rather unusual and unique. There was not much more to think about otherwise. But when you actually think about it, whether or not you consider Alexander Pope’s poem from which it originates from, there is great truth that can be gleaned from this phrase “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.” In fact, it’s truth that points to the heart and soul of Charlie Kaufman’s story.

As humans who love and love to love, there is also the equally likely chance that we might lose that love, or have it come crashing back down upon us. Thus, if we lived with a mind never cluttered with such a thing as love and all the complexities, pain, and emotions that go with it, then could we not be forever happy? There would be nothing to darken our mood, as ignorance truly is bliss. Except in that statement, there is something inherently wrong, because to be human means to be thinking and feeling creatures of reason. Take that away from us and we are little more than animals. But with our minds, we can do so much that is worthwhile. Perhaps we get hurt in the process, and yet that brings to mind another long overused epithet. It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. It’s a paraphrasing of Tennyson I think.

This is a great place to enter into this film — this absurdly idiosyncratic vision of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry. Initially, the story of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great mess — a great web of confusion. The tone is a bit melancholy only to be injected with a heavy dose of whimsy. A man quite suddenly boards a train and meets a free-spirited girl. It’s a meet-cute, and yet there’s a strange sensation that this is not the first time they have met.

Over time everything begins to fall into place just like memories hidden away in the human mind. In fact, that’s exactly like this film. Joel (Jim Carrey) is a subdued, often lonely man, who decides to get rid of his memories, especially when he learns that his former girlfriend Clementine has done the same. He just wants to be able to get over her. But as part of the process, all his past memories come flooding back from the most recent to the oldest. Each and everyone seems to include Clem in one way or another. It’s quite the strange sensation, although Joel does begin to get used to it. That doesn’t mean he likes it.

eternalsunshine2He swims in and out of consciousness between the past and then the present that is going on outside his head. The voices inside his head, or more aptly, the voices right outside his head come from two engineers (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo) from a company in charge of erasing his memories. They create a map of them so they can remove the memories later.

Paranoia sets in as Joel’s past disappears, and he attempts to stop the inevitable erasing of all his recollections. They’re lucid dreams or more like lucid nightmares accompanied by paralysis. However, Joel goes off grid into the deep cavernous expanses of his brain. Entering places where his deepest desires and deep-seated feelings hide. It might be buried in his childhood, humiliating ordeals he was put through, or his most intimate memories of the girl Clementine.

This film is most certainly inventive, but it becomes endangered of relying too heavily on a concept or a gimmick in a way that gets in the way of the love story. Although that does happen at times, in general, Eternal Sunshine functions in great capacity. While being utterly original, it still manages to be anchored by the story of Joel and Clementine. That is due to the wonderfully restrained performance of Carrey paired with Winslet’s dyed-hair and unfettered turn as Clem.

eternalsunshine3Finally, the narrative folds over on itself again as Joel’s mind returns to the present — a present without any recollection of Clementine. They meet again and there’s a strange sensation in the air. It’s a true deja vu moment that has them befuddled and confused. Will they go through with their relationship even when they find out about their rocky history?

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Eternal Sunshine is that it feels liberating, but it’s liberation without the prospects of romance going anywhere. How do we know that Joel and Clem won’t fall into the same ruts they did before? However, maybe that’s exactly the point. Love often means taking risks and stepping out when it’s hard. The great unknown can be daunting, but without it, there could be no joy or hope in life, only mindless interactions with arbitrary meaning. Love is worth the risk for Joel and Clementine. It’s the same for most people. Therein lies the beauty behind it.

4/5 Stars

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

VirginSuicidesPosterIn her debut, Sofia Coppola fashions the 1970s with a washed out wistfulness that feels like a distant memory — lingering for a time — leaving a few far away remembrances to be eulogized and reminisced about.

Her film is really about two groups. There are the Lisbon girls who live with their militantly authoritarian parents and then the neighborhood boys who look on with awe. These girls are the unattainable prize that all of these young men are entranced by. They are not besmirched or dirtied by the ways of the world, stuck in the ivory tower of their parent’s home. It’s almost as if they come out of a dream, so pure and in the same way so provocative.

However, things get shaken up when the youngest daughter attempt to commit suicide and then in a free moment she jumps out of the window and meets death by the metal fence posts below. Red flags should be going up everywhere, but stubborn Mrs. Lisbon only becomes more stringent in her moralistic ways. She should be trusting her daughters, allowing them certain freedoms, but she only takes away more. And reluctant Mr. Lisbon does nothing to stop her. He just lets it be.

Only allowed to socialize at one dance under strict guidelines, the girls relish this opportunity and so do the boys. They finally get their chance with a different class of girl. But after the smitten Lux breaks curfew, all the sisters lose all contact with the outside world. The iron gates go down, and she never gets another moment with high school heartthrob Trip. On top of that, their mother makes her burn all her records in another strict turn.

Lux defies her passively in any way possible as she and her sisters try and maintain contact with the boys on the outside. But there is a point for any person where this type of confinement, this type of prison, gets to be too much. The girls reach the end of their rope and take the only way out they can see.

Oddly enough, most of the boys have little personality, but the focus is the Lisbons and specifically their daughters. The Virgin Suicides was partly intriguing because it never seemed to take on some dramatic tone and it never felt all that personal. I felt so far away. As Carol King mournfully sang, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore. It would be so fine to see your face at my door. Doesn’t help to know you’re so far away.” That’s exactly what this film does. It doesn’t allow us to get close and that aloofness lent itself to the intrigue we have in these girls. We’re pulled into their story along with all these young boys.

3.5/5 Stars

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

86a5e-eternal_sunshine_of_the_spotless_mind_ver3Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet this fantasy romance opens with a man named Joel waking up in a funk. He boards a train and meets the free-spirited Clementine for what seems to be the first time.

The film then starts at the beginning where Joel and Clementine were actually lovers. They had a fight however, and Clementine paid for all of her memories of Joel to be erased. When Joel finds this out he too wants to have the procedure done. It takes place in his sleep and so he begins to see their romance in reverse order.

When he revisits some of the good times, he tries desperately to save some of the memories, but in the end they are erased. The film starts up again where it began with the pair meeting. They both discover tape recordings about their relationship and it causes them to become scared and confused. Joel asks her if they can begin again and Clementine is apprehensive that the same problems will creep up again.

However, they do decide to go through with it again because love is worth the risk. The non-linear, inventive story line by Charlie Kaufman is interesting and the rest of the  cast was pretty good including Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirsten Dunst.  Furthermore, it was interesting to see Jim Carey in a dramatic role. This is a solid romantic comedy with some interesting ideas about memories, but I feel it deserves another watch due to the confusing story arc.

4.5/5 Stars