About a month after seeing James Mangold’s wonderful and moving “Logan” I was scrolling through the Netflix queue and stumbled upon a film that shares the same ethos; to project fantastical superhuman abilities through a very human lens. “Midnight Special,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is a movie about a family on the run. Roy (Michael Shannon) has enlisted the assistance his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to bust him and his family out of a cult existence built around his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Pursued by agents from the church, desperate to get their hands on their ’saviour’; government agents like Sevier (Adam Driver) who’ve picked up peculiar information that Alton has ‘impossibly’ relayed to the cult; and his son’s growing powers threatening to drain and extinguish his life.
“Midnight Special” is contemporary and tangible. America is in a state of yearning and desperation that’s exemplified by the vast disconnect between political spheres. Religious groups, particularly those that claim to have answers, have a strange lure. Shannon’s Roy though has this aura and intensity that seems to sniff out exploitation under the veil of deliverance. He bursts into the film, liberating his son from the role within the cult at any cost. While he doesn’t fully understand what’s happening to his son, he won’t compromise that it should be anyone else’s responsibility. Nichols builds the story around their flight, Roy and Lucas are already on the road with Alton and we’re gleaning information as their opposing forces are in pursuit.
Alton (Lieberher) is essentially a mutant in “Midnight Special.” While spandex infected definitions of that word may wrestle with your association, he’s touched with the ability to communicate with inter-dimensional beings. His power is literally luminescent, struggling to be contained. The exertion depletes the young man’s gentle frame. Shannon’s Roy on the other hand is imposing, with an outward intensity. Roy’s interactions with Alton reveal warmth and tenderness for the burden of his child. Nichols casting makes his job easier as a performance director as his principal cast Shannon and Lieberher compliment one and other perfectly. Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah is Alton’s mother and we see her fragility and softness has mixed with Roy’s blunt instrument to create this delicate but determined man.
Nichols (now frequent) collaborator Edgerton delivers a great supporting performance as Lucas. While he’s clearly disturbed with the lengths and the composure of Roy as they break a myriad of laws and get themselves into an increasingly hair raising situations he commits to continue despite having to act in ways that are morally troubling. Adam Driver’s Sevier is the sceptic of the film. Inquisitive and probing at how it’s at all possible that this young man snatched government information like a leaf on a breeze. Driver’s Sevier is amused with the members of the cult deifying professorial information that makes him think their saviour is more Snowden than Jesus.
Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone chart the film’s symbolic journey from darkness to the light. The opening of the film heightens the novelty of Alton’s physical power, radiating and brightening up dark places. As the film progresses though to its climax, the breadth is brought to us in all its magnificence. Stone and Editor Julie Monroe balance Nichols’ epic vision with experiential perspectives so effectively. David Wingo’s score is a kind of organic and synthetic landscape, enriching what we’re viewing in every way.
“Logan” and “Midnight Special” have token, list making similarities such as: they’re road films, with power child mutants seeking escape from authorities and other shady forces. What makes them perfect companions is their emotional architecture. Their leading characters have an impulse to protect but they tackle it in such different ways. For Roy, protective paternal instinct cuts-through the exploitative impulses of the cultists (played tremendously by Bill Camp, Scott Haze and Sam Shepard) and the government agencies that he knows would want to confiscate his son once they realised his power. Logan (Hugh Jackman) has spent decades suppressing the very instincts that have made him a hero. When Laura arrives, his genetic clone, full of his raw ferocity and with a nudge from his fragile father figure Charles (Patrick Stewart) by his side he surrenders to his impulse. Roy is willing to do everything in his power to protect Alton; Logan knows all too well what can happen if he unleashes his power to get Laura to her destination.
In both modest rides, on roads to safety and salvation there’s earth shattering power; not only in the realm of the characters but in the character’s resonance.