At one point in writer-director Jeff Nichols’ excellent “Midnight Special,” there’s a shot of a person looking up at the sky then cracking a smile. In that moment you can tell that this character has had their faith rewarded and affirmed, and the weight of the moment hit me like a sonic boom. “Midnight Special,” most overtly, is a movie about faith, but not the proselytizing and condescending sort. It’s about the personal struggles people have with their own faith as well as the struggle to put your faith in the hands of another person. Sorry if this comes off as clumsy, I don’t consider myself to be particularly religious, but I do tend to find stories about people wrestling with themselves in this regard to be fascinating.
Going in blind is the best way to approach “Midnight Special.” It’s a story that asks a lot of the audience and having no expectations is the easiest way to give yourself over to the movie and trust that you’re in good hands. I highly recommend watching that way. Let this serve as the SPOILER WARNING for the rest of the review. In a nutshell, it’s a chase movie. It’s about a child, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) who has special powers, and the factions who want to get ahold of Alton. There’s his dad, Roy (Nichols regular Michael Shannon), who just wants what’s best for Alton. Then there are the people from their church who believe Alton is the key to their salvation. Bringing up the rear in the chase is the FBI.
This is the fourth team up between Nichols and leading man Shannon and the trust between the two is obvious. Shannon always makes every look and twitch count, but that goes double this time out. Long looks and uttered words frequently stand in for a more loquacious approach, which makes sense because his struggle is mostly internal. He’s a man who wants to do right by his son, even though that may mean letting him go forever. In “Toy Story 3,” Woody says “I can’t stop Andy from growing up, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” In “Midnight Special” Roy’s problem is that for Alton to grow up he’s going to have to miss it. It’s incredibly humbling and powerful to see that sort of selflessness on display. As far as parables about parenting go, it’s not overly complex, but it is potent.
In a lesser story the lack of character arcs would be problematic. Lucas (Joel Edgerton) is the audience surrogate; a long-time friend of Roy’s roped in to getting Alton from point A to B. Most of what we learn about Alton comes via Lucas’ observation, so we’re on similar trajectories from confused to believing. It’s not long before Lucas comes to seeing things the way Roy does, but Edgerton does a nice job selling the character’s uncertainty while it lasts.
Some people will find the lack of answers frustrating, especially as the scope and action get bigger and bigger, but in a movie about faith, that’s part of the point. If you’re on the movie’s emotional wavelength, the ambiguity should feel justified and considered part of journey.
“Midnight Special” fits in well with Nichols previous films (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud”), which focus on familial issues of one sort or another. This time out he has a bigger budget, but doesn’t sacrifice anything in terms of aesthetic or substance for the sake of flashy effects sequences. He still manages to hit the emotional notes as before, but also works in impressive set pieces (a particularly explosive event at a gas station is a showstopper on par with many mega-budget affairs). He’s a filmmaker of considerable skill and it’s all on display in “Midnight Special”. Here’s hoping he gets to keep doing things his way and doesn’t get co-opted for hired gun projects .