If you have ever wondered how completely and to what ends a father could believe in and love his son, then look no further than Mike Nichols’ latest masterpiece, Midnight Special, for the answer.
While the film is ostensibly about a remarkable 8 year old boy Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) who manifests a slew of logic-defying gifts such as the ability to tune into radio signals, and heavily encrypted NSA ones at that, and the willingness of people around him including a ranch full of cultists who have built a Christian-ish religion around him, at its heart this slow-burning, deeply meaningful film is about the love a father who needs to believe in something to his son who seems worthy of that belief.
If not in the ranchers blinkeredly devoted manner, then in the sense that he is something special, and that whatever it takes to make he is happy and fulfilled is worth doing.
When the film opens, we see Alton, his father Roy (the superlatively-gifted Michael Shannon) and his trusted friend Lucas (Australia’s Joel Edgerton) on the run – from the ranchers, the FBI who believe the boy to be a weapon and a media frenzy that is slowly brewing around Alton’s disappearance.
Nichols rather masterfully doesn’t flag what’s happening well ahead of time, nor over explain what is happening or what it all means, trusting his audience to figure it all out as the film unfurls, scene by carefully-calibrated scene.
This is not a film in a hurry – nor is it woefully slow either; it’s simply happy to let the story, penned by the director, work itself out in its own good time – and it simmers along with what might first appear as a series of disjointed moments in time until Nichols joins them all gloriously together.
To reveal any more about the plot would be to give too much away about this beautifully immersive film; suffice to say that it goes to wondrous and dramatic places, with the final revelation the sort of finely-judged payoff that most other films would long to have and execute this well.
What is most transfixing about this film is the fast, central bond that exists between Roy and Alton.
Alton’s gifts manifests in all kinds of highly unusual ways that challenge anyone who is content to think inside the box or unable to imagine that something else may lie outside it that demands the kind of conviction that most people simply aren’t capable of possessing.
And Roy is challenged more than once as he attempts to protect Alton from a host of pursuers, none of whom truly understand who is, what he can do or love him with the fierce passion of Roy and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst).
But such is Roy’s belief in his son, so steadfast and unwavering his belief that his son is meant for something far greater than the usual Earthly pursuits that he pour everything he is and has into ensuring that Alton gets where he needs to go and becomes the young man Roy is convinced he is meant to be.
What is so remarkable about Midnight Special is that Nichols manages to place emotions this intense and profound in a movie so restrained that it never feels the need to overly dramatise anything.
Things happen as they happen, and we, like the characters including an NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) with whom Alton forms an unusual bond at one point, are asked to believe that they are leading somewhere or not believe.
Of course once you’re in the company of Roy, Sarah and Lucas, it’s hard to give in to any kind of scepticism.
The warmth and love flowing from these three people and the purity of their belief disarms any sense that they are wackos or nutjobs with more than a screw loose.
These are people that aren’t motivated by wild, blind belief but by a deep, calm sense that life has to mean something and in their case, it’s is that Alton is special, life-changingly, transformatively special.
In many ways, Midnight Special harkens back to films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film which slowly unfurled with no real sense of urgency but which delivered a powerful knockout payoff that was never less than meaningful in the most life-altering of ways.
Like Spielberg’s masterful 1970s opus to the power of belief, Midnight Special simply asks us to believe, to accept that what we know of life is not the full story and that much lies beyond our perception of the world around us.
It also asks us to trust in the power of love, trust and belief in those close to us, to always take them at face value, to support them with everything at our disposal and to never be anything else than a total advocate for them.
That’s a powerful kind of love, and it costs greatly – no character gets away totally scot-free in this thoughtful film – but Nichols assures us that whatever we have to pay, it’s worth it, that belief in people and in something other than ourselves is never a waste of time.
Having said that it’s less an affirmation of religion per se – the ranchers aren’t completely painted as fundamentalist nutjobs but the portrayal isn’t far off that at points – as the power of believing, of non-conditional love and of being willing to do what it takes to ensure that those we love become the people they’re meant to be and achieve what matters to them.
It’s an overwhelmingly touching, unhurried film that believes we are capable of so much more, and takes its own sweet, poignantly beautiful time showing us just how utterly rapturous and deeply meaningful life can be if we’re simply open to the possibilities around us.