*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*
“We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things”
It’s a potent line spoken by Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a lost soul of a man who recently reunited with his childhood best friend, Roy (Michael Shannon, perfectly run-down but not out, as always) and now finds himself in a fine mess, waxing about the nature of people and the world with Sarah (a quietly fervid Kirsten Dunst) in a hotel room hoping that Roy (who “believes in something” Sarah’s fatalist romanticizes) makes it back from wherever he just went with his and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), a sick little boy with special powers wanted by the cult from which he came and the US government. They’ve got to get the kid to a very specific place for a very specific reason (to fulfill a destiny?), but they don’t know what or why that is.
Everyone in the film ends up believing in Alton’s powers, but all have their own perverted take. The cult sees him as their chosen one, the government as a weapon. Early on in the film Lucas and Roy hide out with Alton at an ex-cult member’s house (played with perfectly subverted creepiness by David Jensen). In the middle of the night, the whole house shakes and Roy and Lucas run into Alton’s bedroom where Jensen’s character is doing “that eye thing” with the child – perhaps a creative veil meant to symbolize child abuse at the hands of the religious? Later in the film after Lucas and Sarah’s conversation about belief, Roy duct-tapes a Kevlar vest to Alton’s small frame (for his protection, of course) which eerily echoes the images of child suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chests (they, too, fulfilling a destiny). Yes, indeed, we got people dying (and killing) everyday believing in things. This kind of subtext is becoming Jeff Nichol’s trademark, and where his writing and directing is able to build tension and elicit primal emotional responses from his audience.
In this way, Nichols masterfully uses the science fiction genre as a vehicle to explore modern-day societal fears. Yes, there’s some Spielbergian mysticism afloat here (Close Encounters whispers broodingly throughout), but Nichols puts his signature stamp on the proceedings, filtering the sense of awe through his classic “tortured/soulful father figure” archetype as seen in Roy. There’s the same feeling of unease and dread that made his “father/husband on the brink of economic and mental collapse” think-piece Take Shelter so…thrilling. He plays with the audience’s expectations…is the science fiction merely an elaborate fantasy shielding those who love Alton most from…his fatal sickness? Abuse he suffered at the cult?
Meanwhile, cinematographer Adam Stone milks the imagery in Nichols’ head with the same sense of giddy subversion mixed with cinematic homage. The headlights on the train of school busses rolling over a hill in the night towards a cult compound briefly look like they could be the head beams of the space ships in Close Encounters. A sunrise literally shakes the earth to its core with flowers, trees and man quivering in its awesomeness. All the while David Wingo’s minimalist score pulses, vibrates and shudders.
Not everything is explained (hell, we’re even left to guess about the film’s title…presumably some slang for Alton’s nightly displays during his time at the cult) and the audience is left to make up their own mind about what really happens, though the denouement is still revelatory and surprising and can be taken at face value if you want.
Much like Jessica Chastain’s mother figure in Take Shelter comes to terms with her family’s fate in that film’s haunting closing scene, so does Kirsten Dunst’s mother figure in Midnight Special – showing Nichol’s keen sense of family dynamics and crypto-feminism. Often it is the women left to scour the emotional blast zone for a sense of meaning and purpose. Dunst’s knowing smile in the mirror as she lops off her cult-bound locks leads us to believe in a world of terror and fear for our children’s safety, there is still hope. And just like Nichol’s last film, Mud, this Midnight Special is a helluva thing.
Written by David H. Schleicher