Writer / director Jeff Nichols pitched his latest southern set supra-natural family thriller Midnight Special to leading man Michael Shannon with the simple premise of a boy and his son on the run. At night. In a cool car. Couple this with the boy’s need to shelter from the light, and you could rename it Two Lane Black-out.
The film is ambitious, not necessarily in its scope (it’s a mid-budget suspense and wonder film, with spectacle used sparingly), but in its structure and drip feed of information, that require the audience to sit up and pay attention – to invest in these characters and their various interactions. The themes of belief, trust, hope and above all faith, of one kind or another, permeate and propel the action.
The film opens with T.V chatter in a motel room where we discover concurrently with the broadcast alert that the men therein – Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), father of the accompanying 8 year old boy Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), and burly co-conspirator Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are accused of kidnapping the lad. Details are vague. “Is this The Ranch?” Lucas growls. “No. Something else,” a gimlet-eyed Roy replies, as they tear down cardboard black-outs from the window (shades of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, another American gothic road movie) and sneak away in the dead of night. Lucas drives lights off, wearing night vision goggles, attuned to a police scanner, the classic Chevelle’s throaty roar punching through the night. Batman to Alton’s Superman.
Why does the lad have a different surname from his father? Turns out, as we find out at the Ranch, or Haven, that Roy and Alton are escaping a Christian apocalyptic style cult, where the leader Calvin Meyer (an all too brief role by the great Sam Shepherd) has adopted him, bending his sermons to the boys “talking in tongues” fits and ramblings that sound curiously like codified data. Alton wears cobalt swimming goggles as well. He’s prone to blinding white light emanating from his eyes – to look within reveals mysteries that the soul and spiritually sick hunger for. A Tomorrowland, today. So much so that Calvin sends gun toting emissaries, plain, beige believers, to bring the boy “home”. Another ex-cult member can’t help himself – having touched “the Divine” before, his life now is empty and hollow. Is it any wonder the film is set in Louisiana wintry wetlands, the coppery reeds and long grass suggesting a world who’s time is passing?
Turns out though the FBI have been keeping tabs on these gun-hoarding would be Branch Davidians. Alton is a conduit of some kind – a radio transmitter to – what? The Ranch believes he is an oracle, come to lead them to a pre-ordained day of reckoning. The NSA, as represented by a nerdy, bespectacled Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) view him initially as a threat to national security. The agent, really a maths whiz analyst, is “chosen” during interrogation, and also comes to believe, disobeying orders to help out. Lucas, a childhood friend before the cult drew Roy (a State Trooper turned believer – a latter day Centurion Cornelius?), and the boys estranged mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) another ex-cult member, believe like Roy that Alton needs to get to certain recalled co-ordinates in a matter of days, for his own benefit and special purpose. In this regard it has the feel of a knowing callback to the modern quests of Spielberg’s E.T and John Carpenter’s Starman. Like E.T, the boy gets sicker before he takes drastic action, asking his father to trust in him. From thereon, he seems to evolve a surer sense of purpose and authority. “You don’t need to worry dad,” he consoles Roy. “I like worrying about you,” Roy cracks, kneeling and gripping his shoulders. His world has shrunk to this one task.
The use of light, be it Alton reading Superman comics given to him by Lucas by a flashlight’s yellow blanketed cocoon, or the shocking white light bursting forth from his eyes to a deafening cacophony, also suggest a Close Encounters influence. A spectacular moment in a night-time gas station forecourt suggests that film’s glowing orbs are descending, only to become accelerating meteorites smashing into the ground and exploding the gas tanks as the band run for their van and tear off (Alton has plucked a spy satellite from orbit, the sole purpose of which was to trace his heat signature. Sometimes he isn’t even aware of what he’s doing, perhaps being protected by others like him, drawing him to them).
The film is a compelling study of the human drive to find answers to life’s mysteries, etched in the pained expressions of both protagonists and antagonists, as obstacles continually block their way. Even more telling, is the heroes faces come the denouement. Sarah is accepting, in a state of grace, slipping back into the shadows. Lucas, ever the pragmatist. But what pain tinged joy lies behind Roy’s eyes? Is there a promised land somewhere out there that he yet seeks, like his Close Encounters namesake?