Is the central character in Jeff Nichols’ new film Midnight Special a weapon, as another of its characters suggests? Is he a facilitator of the Last Judgment? Or is he just a cool kid who sees a higher purpose for himself — unrelated to anyone else’s demise or salvation — and who, like any cool kid, is bound to be misunderstood by a myopic society? It’s through this unknown (for as long as the film keeps it an unknown) that Midnight Special is able to live in a world that’s the aesthetic and thematic combination of all of these possibilities: creating continual shocks surrounding the propensities of a tiny, cryptic, but seemingly kindhearted kid with crazy powers and blue goggles. Sometimes, there’s wonder à la Harry Potter, sometimes dread à la Carrie.
The magical child is both a powerful and a familiar trope. From Harry Potter to Matilda to Pan’s Labyrinth to, ugh, Chappie, child prodigies of the fantastical ilk spring from an overarching human desire for the next generation to transcend our own world, plagued as it is by its confining physical laws — and the confining societies they engender. On the flip-side, there’s the horrific child, as in The Omen, Village of the Damned, Let the Right One In, The Exorcist, and even recently American Horror Story: Hotel. This archetype feeds off the simultaneous fear of childhood as something that can be beyond adults’ control — to the point of danger. Midnight Special‘s central child is somewhere in between: he’s a Matilda who blows up satellites and conjures earthquakes and makes the Midnight Special audience jump because his magic powers are sound-mixed really effectively.
At its core, Jeff Nichols’ new film is antithetical — despite some aesthetic, thematic, and tonal similarities — to his earlier film, Take Shelter, also starring Michael Shannon. The latter was all oncoming darkness; with Midnight Special, we’re hopeful for light. Shelter similarly concerned what seemed to be a doomsday prophecy that boiled down to one person and their dealings with — or provocation of — some strange natural occurrences (though they’re rendered more spectacularly here). In Midnight Special, a braided, religious sect — who, despite their old world dressings, don’t shy away from wielding new-world firearms — has taken an eight-year-old boy named Alton as its figurehead and presumed savior, believing he’s leading them towards the right end of Judgment Day. Ritualistically, they stare into his eyes, which “show them things.” And when he’s rescued by his ferociously determined birth father (Michael Shannon), mother (Kristen Dunst), and their empathic sidekick, Alton has to keep his powers in check to stay as inconspicuous as possible — sporting blue goggles as prophylaxis against his tendency to send blinding blue light spewing from his eyes. (Other tendencies include: hearing the radio when it’s not on and speaking proficient Spanish! Also, like the vampire kiddies of Let the Right One In and AHS: Hotel, we’re told he’s sunlight-averse, and is only awake at night.)
But while the Take Shelter family all seemed to be easing their way towards a horrifying end, there’s an escalating sense that whatever’s at the conclusion of Alton’s path — which his parents are risking their lives to help him reach — is something beautiful. That is, if various adverse forces don’t stop him from reaching it.
Many adored Take Shelter for its insinuating quality and its atmosphere — its decided avoidance of standard sci-fi explanation. Critics were able to allegorize it as a story of people’s decisions to remain ignorant despite the world’s deteriorating ecology, which brought gravity to a narrative that was otherwise intentionally thin. The same extrapolation can be done with Midnight Special, especially when you know that the story came from Nichols’ own experience almost losing his eight-month-old son to a febrile seizure.
But what if you don’t know that? In this story, you can certainly likewise draw parallels to discourses about raising trans or gender nonconforming children — or any child who, at a young age, displays signs that they’ll live life outside narrowly accepted norms. Should the parent help them on that journey, teaching them to survive societal hardship, or provide the hardship themselves by imprisoning them in the world they’re more familiar with? The parents in this film are the former type, and their relationship with Alton is lovely, though it becomes mired in some of the more convoluted sci-fi half-explanations in the film.
I wonder if the desire to affix more concrete readings to Nichols’ films comes not from the intellectual challenges they pose (both have pretty on-the-nose arcs), but rather from the fact that they don’t quite serve up the emotional heft they attempt. “Plot is obviously necessary, but what I really care about is emotionally affecting the audience,” Jeff Nichols said in a recent interview with The Verge. But Midnight Special — a chase film that ropes in a religious sect and the NSA in an Orphan Black-like story of the individual vs. religion and government — feels like it wants it both ways. It’s never as emotionally affecting as it wants to be, nor does it provide such a sense of aesthetic mystery as to become a mostly visual experience. And the suggestions of a conspiratorial plot are a little too heavy for the film to truly seem like it’s avoiding plot.
Because it reveals the somewhat fluid rules of its world slowly, Midnight Special keeps you guessing — instead of feeling — as you go along. This wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t seem so simultaneously insistent on having audiences be moved by the tenacious love and support of Shannon’s and Dunst’s characters towards Alton.
Other recent genre-defying films — namely, The Witch and 10 Cloverfield Road — wrench audiences deeply and immediately into their unfamiliar worlds. Perhaps the difference is that those are contained worlds, and Nichols’ American expanse-traversing film is a lot harder to sink into. When the audience is supposed to be moved, there’s this lingering notion of an unexplained, convoluted plot existing as a little too much more than an insinuation. I certainly don’t want more explanation for some of the awe-inducing and beautiful shit that goes down. In fact, I wonder if the film would have worked better if it’d been even more willing to let the balance between plot, atmosphere, and emotion shift — and to let the latter two truly dictate the experience.
The film takes its title from a folk song of the same name, repeating the lyric, “Let the Midnight Special shine a ever-loving light on me.” And it wants to induce a sense of overwhelming love through its near-violent depictions of one such loving light. It almost gets there.
What’s perhaps most frustrating is that I understood this desire and wanted to reciprocate the effort by feeling it wholly. But I woke up the morning after I’d seen the film, and the strongest impression I was left with was a flash of very pretty blue light that flickered off before transcending my world.