Midnight Special (M). Director: Jeff Nichols. Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver. 112 minutes
When we first meet Alton Meyer (Lieberher) — the enigmatic, miraculous child at the heart of this engrossing sci-fi drama — he is shawled in a white sheet, gazing upwards through a pair of blue goggles, his ears covered by a pair of bulky yellow earmuffs.
Within the context of the film there are practical reasons for these adornments, which we will soon learn. Visually however there is also a strong association here with an iconic image from Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; of that film's bulb-headed, blue-eyed hero, wrapped for discretion in a white blanket as he flees government agents.
Such associations are not accidental. Arkansas born filmmaker Nichols is known for his at-once intimate and mythic takes on Southern Gothic drama in films like Take Shelter and Mud; yet he sought in Midnight Special to explore a sub-genre of sci-fi government chase movie that was popular in the 1980s (along with E.T. Mark Lester's Firestarter comes vividly to mind). They are films that, in Nichols' words, contain a 'mystery that unfolds into some sense of awe'. And so we have Alton, an eight-year-old boy who possesses super-human powers, the nature and purpose of which is revealed gradually to characters and audience alike.
The pursuit of Alton is two-fold. On the one hand there is the heavily armed cult, led by the Southern Baptist styled preacher Calvin Meyer (Shepard), from which Alton has escaped under the care of his father Roy (Shannon). On the other, there are the government forces, personified by NSA operative Paul Sevier (Driver).
The cult is enamoured to Alton because of his penchant for emitting scintillating beams of light from his eyes (hence the aforementioned goggles); also for his apparent gift for speaking in tongues, and for making prophecies they believe predict an imminent day of divine judgement. To them, he is a possible saviour.
"This is apocalyptic imagery, but the Bible is only one of the film's many resonances and reference points."
Said prophecies, it turns out, contain classified data — hence the government's interest. Alton's gift is not for relaying divine communiqués, but for absorbing earthly telecommunications. It is a powerful gift that is not entirely within his ken or control; during one spectacular sequence, he pulls a satellite out of the sky, causing deadly fireballs to rain upon the earth.
This is apocalyptic imagery, but the Bible is only one of the film's many resonances and reference points; elsewhere Alton is seen to be leafing through a Superman comic, earnestly, as if it might contain some clue as to the nature of his own superhumanity.
This is in some ways a confounding film, whose enigmas could well be simply plot holes. For example, Alton needs to reach a specific location by a specific time; but even once the purpose of the trip is revealed, this specificity of time and location seems arbitrary.
Still, Nichols' vision for the characters and their high-speed, high-stakes pilgrimage along the highways and back roads of the southern United States is confident and compelling. Adam Stone's cinematography is beautifully composed from a minimalist palette (many of the scenes take place at night), allowing the natural environment to loom both striking and fearsome.
Yet despite its epic scope the film is also deeply intimate and, dare I say, spiritual. Roy, as portrayed by the marvellous Shannon, regards his son with a mixture of stern, protective love, and helpless wonder. They are joined in their quest by Roy's childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton), a state trooper converted to Alton's cause after literally seeing the light in his eyes. Also by Alton's mother, Sarah (Dunst), who of all the characters has the most direct experience of the 'sense of awe' that ultimately unfolds from the 'mystery' of Alton's story. All are selfless in their protection of Alton, and all are changed by their faith and self-sacrifice.
Tim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.