One constant to human nature is that we have real problems handling changes to the status quo. Any twist to the usual routine seems to set us on edge; whether it’s as minor as a rescheduling of our bus route, or as major as a new political party taking power. The difficulty in accepting change gets heightened when it comes to the well-being of our families. There are deep roots that are tricky to augment, and protective instincts that need to be overcome.
In short, accepting change is often an alien concept.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL begins with an Amber Alert highlighting the abduction of Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) presumably in the custody of his father Roy (Michael Shannon). The alert seems to have been sounded from a cult in the American south that holds Alton at its centre, a cult headed by Roy’s father Calvin (Sam Shepard).
The cult knows what Roy knows – that Alton is special. He is able to bring down house walls and make objects fall from the sky. How he does it and why he does it, nobody seems to know. This mystery surrounding Alton’s capabilities also seems to have led to disagreement on what’s best for him. Calvin wants him to stand as the cult’s saviour; Roy feels a boy’s place is far away from such distinction.
This disagreement and the abduction it prompts leads both men to ask for help. Calvin sends his number two (a man named Doak) to retrieve the boy; Roy has a former state trooper named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) ride along shotgun to give him a fighting chance. Eventually, Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) is brought into the fray as well in the hopes that she can steady his nerves.
However, when it comes to the goings-on of an isolated and well-armed cult and the talents of the boy at their centre of their beliefs, it’s only a matter of time before the American government becomes curious about the situation. So it is that Agents Miller and Sevier (Paul Sparks and Adam Driver) are tasked with looking into the gifted boy and the strange phenomena he seems to incite.
If MIDNIGHT SPECIAL has a specific thought on its mind, it’s that we need to resist the urge to forget about the ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Now and then, a soul might find themselves in the middle of a special situation – one that prompt great attention, great excitement, or great fear. However, what we are quick to forget is how ill-equipped people may be to handle this sort of attention…and the rash decisions they may make. After all, no matter how special they seem, they are still just someone’s mother…someone’s father…someone’s son.
The setting of MIDNIGHT SPECIAL seems understated, but in reality plays a big part in shaping the events of the story. Like every other film from this director, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is set in small rural communities throughout the American south. These are areas of the country that have very little going for them, so to them what’s most important is each-other. They take care of their own, and even if a person isn’t known to another, the way they speak and the way they dress can go a long way in establishing their place.
It’s this sense of community that explains why Doak and Lucas are willing to go to such lengths for the men they are helping. It even seems as though Paul Sevier comes from this sort of stock, and why he is able to sympathize so deeply with Alton and Roy. The point is the swatch of America that MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is set in does not allow one to live in a bubble, and sometimes that’s for the best.
The biggest challenge with this latest Jeff Nichols offering is what to make of everything that remains unsaid. For starters, we do not know how or why Roy took Alton out of the cult surroundings – only that he did. We also don’t fully flesh-out the nature of his relationship with Sarah, only that at this point in their son’s life, they are seeing eye-to-eye on what’s best for him. For some, such unexplored avenues may seem like lazy storytelling. It’s a fair question since it would go a long way to explain why Alton’s predicament has prompted such drastic measures and violent acts. What’s more, we don’t fully grasp why the cult sees Alton as their saviour. We know what he can do, but why do they believe that his abilities will protect them from “what’s coming”?
For some, such gaps in the narrative may feel like a story short-sold. For others, they may see such spaces as quiet between the notes that are likewise part of the song.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL – like other films before it – takes the task of parents being able to let go of their children at a certain stage and nicely interweaves it into the narrative. Sometimes that connection ends violently, and sometimes it comes gradually, but no matter what – the effect is usually the same. In almost every instance, the parent struggles with the disconnection more than the child…part due to worry, part due to a desire to keep things as they are. However, as a story like MIDNIGHT SPECIAL reminds us, the worry and desire for status quo are superseded by a determination for parents to sacrifice for their children, and if that means digging deep for faith in the face of the great unknown, then so be it.