Sean K. Cureton

Archive for April, 2016|Monthly archive page

Midnight Special As Ethereal Prophecy

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on April 16, 2016 at 11:51 am
Midnight Special

Warner Bros. Pictures

Midnight Special
Directed by Jeff Nichols
4 out of 4 stars

There’s a certain familiarity and warmth to the proceedings of writer-director Jeff Nichols’ latest cinematic opus Midnight Special that feel immediately timeless despite any overriding skepticism on the part of the viewer. From the very start of Nichols’ contemporary science-fiction fable, everything is at once entirely routine, yet the proceedings are ethereally tinged with something other and fantastic, perhaps Godly. Centering on a father (Michael Shannon) and his gifted son (Jaeden Lieberher), who are on the run from the government after Shannon kidnaps the boy from the foster care of a regional religious cult, the entire film begins to interweave between themes of paternal care and affection at war with spiritual zealotry that gives way to fanatical fervency. The mystery at the heart of Midnight Special comes in the bizarre powers that Shannon’s son manifestly possesses, resulting in a search for answers that takes on the tone and urgency of a holy pilgrimage. Once the film’s climax is surmounted, and Shannon has brought his sacrificial lamb to Mecca, everything is both answered and withheld concerning the meaning behind anything that occurs in Nichols’ film, lending the entire experience the aura of prophecy.

It becomes hard to describe the explicit content of the film’s narrative, as each and every twist and turn that Nichols takes is entirely unexpected, allowing the viewer to revel and gaze in awe at the wonders held therein. There is also no way to succinctly state what the movie is about, or what happened at the very end for that matter, without having studied the film for days on end afterward, and perhaps even then the story will continue to withhold certain secrets inherent to its captivating mystery. At times, Nichols seems like a modern day Christian priest, extolling the virtues of the Holy Trinity, despite the fact that such a holy mystery must remain opaque regardless its overtly foretold virtues. Midnight Special might be the most subversive allegory on twenty-first century American evangelism, yet its identity as a piece of genre fiction simultaneously displaces it alongside such former cineamtic tales inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch as John Carpenter’s Starman or Richard Donner’s Superman. Superhero film narratives have become ubiquitous, boring, and predictable, but Nichols offers something akin to the likes of the former without surrendering to spectacle, which makes the fantasy elements shine all the brighter as they are thus tinged with the majesty of the unknowing and the unremarkable.

Shannon is perhaps the crucial figure in the entire drama, as his interactions with his young son, known with a near pathological reverence by some as Alton Meyer, are at once granted the auspices of a standard father and son drama. Echoing said premise, Nichols has come forward to state that the film’s script was born out of his own relationship with his young son, which makes the film’s heartfelt paternalism all the more effusive and touching. Added to the mix come the supernatural elements that leave Shannon in supplication to the power of an unknown cosmic force and seeming entity, which he finally contends with in the aforementioned final climactic sequence. There are moments early on in Midnight Special that look as unremarkable as Clark Kent’s origin story in Donner’s initial Superman film of 1978 that almost immediately give way to the moving grace of the Godly more forcefully present in Carpenter’s Starman of 1984. In this transition from the ordinary to the supernatural, Nichols constructs a filmed fantasy that becomes identifiable by more than the mere sum of its parts, as Midnight Special revels in a highly original hyperrealism that may be closer to the truth concerning superior beings and intelligences than we have ever seen or heard before.

One could make the argument that perhaps Alton Meyer in Midnight Special stands for the second coming of Jesus Christ, or some other well known figure of mortal religious holiness. Perhaps this is the case, but then again summarily categorizing what is an essential mystery to the script by Nichols would be rendering the entire production short service, and lessening the ultimate impact of the film as a whole. In short, there is an unbelievably attraction to remaining both enlightened and unenlightened, a state of mere being that Nichols appears to approach a cinematic approximation of representing in his new film. Rendering a cursive plot description of said narrative content would thus be a fruitless endeavor, as the experience of seeing the film for the first time and coming away from it with more questions than answers reflects the spiritual condition of many an ethereal seeker, religious and secular alike. There are no easy answers in Midnight Special in the same way that there are no easy answers in life, making Nichols’ latest work a reflective and somber meditation on the human condition that only ever intimates an overt fascination with or reverence for the extraordinary.