WHEN THE UNBELIEVABLE, the fantastical flies in the face of ‘reality’, of everything we’ve grown to believe about how the world functions, writer, director Jeff Nichols suggests (as he did in the brilliant Take Shelter and Mud) that we can choose one of two routes: succumb to the wonder, the quasi religious ecstasy of the supernatural or shut it out, pretend (since there’s no rational explanation) that the experience you know you experienced, simply never happened.
Nichols’ movies live in that space between science fiction and religion; between fiction and faith; perhaps they’re both the same thing.
The – very libertarian – story centers on the picaresque flight of a small nuclear family (and a friend) as they battle to protect their son from the threat of the shadowy forces of government. Alton Meyer (twelve year old Jaeden Lieberher) is a strange – literally – otherworldly child, whose eyes barely hold in check explosions of fatally destructive light (he must wear heavily tinted shades and hide, like a troglodyte, from the sun), who talks in tongues, mutters indecipherable coordinates and has powerful kinetic abilities. He even seems to have the unsettling ability to appear to be in two places at the same time.
Up to now, he has been carefully guarded by his close-knit, Amish-like, farming community, amongst whom he’s seen as a –the– God figure. But word of his powers has reached the wider community and on his tail is a- seemingly- sympathetic NSA agent, Paul Sevier, the ever popular Adam Driver (Star Wars VII).
Alton is a cute enough kid, tenderly devoted and dependent on his protective dad (the always compelling Michael Shannon). And on dad’s broad shoulders rest the need to protect him from the increasingly aggressive community that wants to keep him and feels ownership of ‘their God’ and now an implacable government that wants to take him away and study him. (At its emotional heart, this is simply a very tender and touching parent/child story.)
This child is either a god to be worshipped or an alien phenomena to be studied and feared.
So…in the silence of the night, a well armed dad and an old friend (Joel Edgerton, from Black Mass etc.) steal away, driving in darkness to reunite with mom ( Kirsten Dunst) and thence to one of the coordinates identifies by Alton.
Violence ensues and strange worlds unfold, some of which quite take your breath away.
Nichols leaves no ambiguity in showing us the close encounter of the third kind (though the sensibility is radically different, there certainly are elements of Close Encounter… + ET). But, in the face of the ocular proof, that which we cannot understand, we must simply deny. The last few scenes (like the early movies of M Night Shyamalan) turn the movie on its head.
If the unexplained cannot be converted – as it has been since the beginning of time – to (dumb) faith, then deny, deny, deny.
The truth is out there…
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Dir/writer: Jeff Nichols. With: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver. Cinematographer: Adam Stone (Mud, Take Shelter). Production Designer: Chad Keith (Take Shelter, Begin Again)