Dir: Jeff Nicholls
Starr: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher
Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 13)
NOTE: This review contains unavoidable spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. As much as I was left a little disappointed by Nicholls’ work here, it is still a film worthy of a visit to the cinema.
Jeff Nicholls’ latest film Midnight Special is an atmospherically rendered piece of cinematic hokum. It’s great strength and fatal weakness are one and the same thing. This is a film about belief that veils itself in mystery as a means of assuming the form of religious processes of faith. Nicholls’ thrusts the viewer straight into a disorienting quest for meaning which maintains a keen tension in the film long after Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton has revealed himself possessed of a bizarre array of ‘gifts’. However, this tension comes at the detriment of any meaningful engagement with significant parts of the film’s narrative. So much of Midnight Special remains vague, sketched out rather than thoroughly detailed. This viewer was left frequently wanting to know more about parts of the narrative that drift off into obscurity almost as soon as they have been introduced. Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer, a seemingly charismatic religious sect leader, of the type that Texas produces more than its fair share of, is a genuinely fascinating figure. Yet after his religious compound, entitled ‘The Ranch’, is busted by the FBI, Meyer is forgotten by this film. Likewise, Joel Edgerton’s Lucas, seems to have no real sense of back story aside from the fact of his being a former State Trooper. I found myself constantly wanting to know more about this character’s motivations, and the extent of his history with Shannon’s Roy. The character of Roy, Alton’s real father, is also hazily fleshed out. We get to know he was taken as a teenager to ‘The Ranch’. His relationship with Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah appears to have been a loving one. But what has suddenly woken Roy to the need for his son to be taken out of the clutches of Meyer and his quasi-religon? Nicholls’ seems to be suggesting it is merely an approaching date with destiny and the innate belief that his son will reveal something remarkable upon this date. Even Adam Driver’s nerdish NSA analyst feels less like a plausible human being than a convenient accelerator to a narrative that looks set to stall at any given moment. What do we genuinely learn about any of these characters, and why did Alton have to ascend to this other temporal dimension at the film’s close? No knowledge is forthcoming and few, if any, answers are given. As viewers we observe the faith that Roy, Lucas and Sarah have in Alton, and we bear witness to their belief that Alton is indicative of something beyond the human. The film’s narrative mechanisms are geared toward making us believe in something that we have no clear idea of. In this way it is very much a formal exercise in faith creation, which seems like a particularly American concern.
The propulsive quality of the film’s opening drive into darkness is Nicholl’s trump card. As Roy and Lucas set off with Alton in their muscle car – straight out of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) – the audience are drawn into the darkness. The wonderful aerial and tracking shots that establish the narrowly defined illumination of a torch or a car’s headlights within an otherwise black void, then give way to a moment in which Lucas dons his night vision googles and everything plunges into the indefinable. Throughout the film Nicholls’ balances darkness against light, the darkness being at first all-consuming and obscuring, penetrated only by pockets of light. Things happen in the darkness, but those things are all the more questionable as we cannot fully apprehend what they are. As the film progresses, Alton’s seeming photo-sensitivity gives way; the light is in fact a restorative energy for the child. The final sections of the film actually play out in dazzling, sun-kissed daylight, with the world upon our world that Alton has posited, coming to be revealed as a fleeting actuality, a reality overarching our own and operating in the interstices between what is an what is not.
There have been concerted efforts by critics to draw up a generation of new filmmakers that are primarily influenced by the wonder, terror and sentimentality of Spielberg. Much has been made of Nicholls’ admiration for Hollywood’s most successful movie brat, and it has been easy to draw parallels between Midnight Special and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). However, although both films appear predicated upon an unwavering faith in a higher existence beyond that of the terrestrial, Midnight Special possesses none of the wild mania of Spielberg’s film. Nicholl’s film is not one that is assailed by the creeping fear of doubt. What makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind such an incredible work is the fact that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is allowed to appear almost entirely alone with his beliefs. Within his family and his immediate community, Roy’s pursuit of a belief in extra-terrestrial life is seen as nothing more than mania, brought on by some form of nervous breakdown. Roy’s belief actually does waver, because he is constantly pulled out of himself to view the emotional carnage that his mania exacts upon his friends and family. In effect Roy chooses to subordinate everything to his belief, his faith, but that is something that takes place against the almighty struggle with a world that does not believe Roy. In Midnight Special the fact that Nicholls’ chooses to make his film one that operates from within the wellspring of belief gives less room for doubt. There are no real dissenting voices to the central notion of belief in Alton as an exemplar of ‘otherness’. The director has positioned us with the faithful rather than with the sceptics. As a result there seems to be a surprising lack of conflict within a film that features a fair amount of gun violence and chase sequences. In fact, as the film progressed I found myself considering just how much of what was happening actually occurred because Alton had willed it thus. A test of this is the media coverage of Alton’s abduction that we know hasn’t been planted by his father, but we also observe Meyer denying involvement in calling the story in. Meyer actually says when questioned on this matter by one of his congregation that it wasn’t ‘The Ranch’ that took the story to the media, but rather “that’s something else”.
Nicholls’ is genuinely incapable of making a dull film, but Midnight Special’s singular form makes it, obversely, one of his most unengaging. When Lucas, Roy and Sarah finally bring Alton out into the light it becomes apparent just how ingeniously the darkness made it difficult to discern the degree to which our own faith has been misplaced. There is a cool, machine-calibrated relentlessness of purpose to the film’s darker half, that reminded me of Windig Refn’s exercise in style Drive (2011). Yet this is really all just mechanism and when it comes to trying to ground belief in something more human the film runs aground upon the exhausted vacuousness of Kirsten Dunst’s under explored mother. Dunst is still in post-traumatic melancholia it would seem, her assumption being that by simply being, and being sad, we might connect with her at the film’s close. The fact that we are as detached from Sarah as we are from any of the other nebulous cipher figures that Nicholl’s has ended up giving us, is really a direct comment upon the problem of making your film’s form that of a faithbound belief. What had been so unnerving for so long, ultimately ends up exposing itself as a sham, nothing more than a trick of the light, and in actual fact a whole lot less.