Midnight Special

April 21, 2016
Michael Shannon in 'Midnight Special' (2016)
Michael Shannon in 'Midnight Special' (2016)

Midnight Special begins in the middle, as if we had just loaded up episode two of a series. It’s late at night in a seedy motel room, and there is an item on the TV about the kidnapping of an eight-year-old boy named Alton Meyer. We swiftly realise that we are looking at the boy and his kidnappers. They leave the room, get into a powerful car – a 1972 Chevelle, to be precise – and begin driving at high speed across Texas.

It takes some time before we learn that one of the kidnappers, the granite-faced Roy (Michael Shannon), is the boy’s natural father. It takes a lot longer to learn about his accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who turns off the headlights and drives wearing night-vision glasses.

We cut to a religious community somewhere in Texas, from where the boy has been taken. His adoptive father and cult leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), tells two henchmen they must get Alton back before a certain day, as a matter of life and death. While they are laying plans FBI agents descend on the compound and put everybody on buses to be sent to a camp for processing.

After an hour the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place, although there is much that remains enigmatic. The problem for any reviewer is that director Jeff Nichols has engineered the story in such a manner that anything I say about the plot will only detract from the gradual series of revelations that occur throughout. There are plot lines that don’t quite add up, and dramatic incidents passed over quickly. It may sound like a recipe for confusion, but it works.

It’s not possible to place Midnight Special in any one cinematic genre. It’s a kidnapping, but also a chase. It’s a road movie and a science fiction film. For most of the time the lead characters are as much in the dark as we are. The only thing they know for sure is that Alton has to be delivered to a certain place on a certain day. For the religious cult this is the day of judgement, but nobody actually knows what will happen.

Everything revolves around the boy (Jaeden Lieberher), who has strange, otherworldy powers. It seems the cult leader has been basing his sermons on radio transmissions Alton has psychically downloaded from the ether. This includes a lot of classified information, which is why the FBI has come down so hard.

Alton is a human energy receiver and transmitter. He can’t be exposed to sunlight, and often has to wear goggles and noise-cancelling headphones. Beams of bluish light come surging from his eyes, while grass withers at his touch. In one extraordinary sequence he brings down a satellite over a Louisiana service station, in a hail of space debris.

Apart from this, Alton is a placid, well-behaved, rather weedy little boy, who spends much of the journey studying his first comic books. “What’s Kryptonite?” he asks.

The title of the film refers to the well-known folk song covered by Creedance Clearwater Revival and Lead Belly. The light in the song is a symbol of salvation, and this is what everyone is seeking in Alton. The cult members see him as a saviour. To Roy and his wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) – who comes along at about the halfway stage – protecting their son is central to their own sense of well-being. For Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), of the National Security Agency, Alton is a fascinating conundrum for which he is willing to betray all his official responsibilities.

The exception is the FBI, which views the boy as a potential weapon of mass destruction. One thinks of Steven Spielberg’s unsympathetic portrayal of government agents in ET. There are also nods in the direction of Close Encounters of the Third Kind – particularly the ending, which is a startling departure from the rest of the film. Yet Nichols makes us work much harder than Spielberg. As a story-teller he is not willing to spell everything out, and has no fondness for the music Spielberg uses to drum up an emotional response.

What one takes away from this film is not so much the science fiction angle, but the power of the ties that exist between Roy and his son. It’s the story of a father who is determined to do the right thing for his boy in the face of impossible odds. He persists, despite knowing that the outcome may mean a permanent estrangement between child and parents – or even the end of the world.

One can only marvel at Shannon’s ability to pack so much emotional intensity into such a limited range of expressions. Edgerton is equally convincing, showing why he is enjoying a dream run in Hollywood at present.

Midnight Special will disappoint viewers who look to science fiction for special effects and action sequences, but it is a startlingly original picture. Nichols has given us a cosmic scenario imbued with the grit of backwoods Texas and Louisiana – a thriller set in the dark that waits until the very end to shine its light on planet earth.

Midnight Special
Written & directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
USA, rated M, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd April, 2016.