For a good portion of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, we don’t know exactly what is going on but we can tell something is going on. In the writer/director’s fourth film, he takes us on a spellbinding journey, traveling along on a progressive chase with Ray (Michael Shannon, 99 Houses, Take Shelter) and his young son, Alton (Jaeden Libeher, St. Vincent, Aloha). With a religious cult, the FBI, and the NSA hot on their heels, the two are running – but what are they running for?
To be clear, Alton isn’t normal. He possesses special powers that would make him worthy of the X-Men, if we knew exactly what they did. For most of the first half of the film, the special effects-worthy aspects of the narrative are back-seated to Ray’s determined effort to protect his son at all costs. Sure, we have some “greater good” arguments that come into play, but we know that if someone came to take your kid… you’d fight back.
While his involvement is less clear in the film’s narrative (just to Nichols’ liking) is state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who was once Ray’s best friend and is now intent on protecting Alton. Lucas doesn’t understand Alton – and doesn’t even claim to believe in what Ray says must be true about the boy. But the journey isn’t Ray’s alone, as they travel with the ‘bad guys’ in hot pursuit. Thanks to Dave Wingo’s driving score, it’s a pulse-pounding, anxiety-filled ride that entertains in ways most films only dream of. [And, in a slightly more wordy way, it works toward the Mad Max: Fury Road mode of storytelling: show, don’t tell.]
Pick a film from the 1980s – E.T., Starman, Firestarter – and you’ll see a pattern where the forces that be determine that someone (or somebody in the case of E.T.) has special powers that they can’t control on their own. [If you choose to be more paranoid, you can say that the government wants to control said powers.] But for Nichols’ script, full of places for us to imagine or wonder, it doesn’t matter why Ray and Alton are running as much as it matters that Ray believes.
Belief. Obviously a big topic at a site like ScreenFish, right? In Nichols’ script (and under his watchful direction), belief gets analyzed by the atheist (Lucas), the zealot (Sam Shepherd’s cult leader, Calvin Meyer), a former cult disciple (Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah), an NSA agent (Adam Driver’s Paul Sevier), and several other less-heralded characters. To be honest, I don’t think Nichols cares if you’re satisfied with his answers, but he’s determined to ask the questions.
He believes in something. You don’t.— Sarah
It doesnt matter. Good people die all of the time. —Lucas
This exchange between Sarah and Lucas highlights the issue. For some, it’s not about belief, it’s about practicality. For others, it’s about belief in the face of impracticality but which must be explored. For a third set, it’s about belief that rises above (denies all?) practicality and any other reason. Artfully, the film presents us with the various options, and asks us to consider which category we fall in, without narrowing it down to a single choice.
It’s this faith-filled discussion that drove the film to places that I think the best science fiction goes. Why are we here? Who are we supposed to believe? Is this it? It’s the kind of question that Nichols seemed to point to in our interview yesterday, and the kind of questions that I think we’re supposed to ask – whether we’re involved in organized religion or not.
While all of those ’80s sci-fi thrillers are good places to find comparison, I couldn’t help but think of the times from my own reading of the Bible where I saw people misinterpret who Jesus is or was. I think we still do it today. In John 6:15, it says that “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” Or, in Matthew 27:11, we see it when Jesus refuses to let Pilate pin him down to one thing.
Friends, there is mystery here. While I believe in an omnipotent God who sent Jesus to die on the cross for my sins, I will admit that I can’t understand or fathom it all. I don’t even always know what questions to ask! But I know it can’t be controlled, or hidden, or held onto – much in the same way that neither Ray nor the NSA can quite hold onto Alton. Alton’s light shines – and light cannot be hidden.
Go see this movie, and ask yourself what questions do you need answered.