Midnight Special

Midnight Special is like George MacDonald watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then wrote a screenplay for Wim Wenders to direct. It’s possible only one thing in that sentence is familiar to you—Close Encounters of the Third Kind—so let’s consider each one-by-one as a way of preparing to watch Midnight Special.

Midnight Special is the fourth film from Arkansan writer/director Jeff Nichols. His previous three films—Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud—all feature Michael Shannon, center on families, and often those families are tested by suspiciously supernatural events. In Midnight Special, a father, Roy (Michael Shannon; named, it seems, after Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and son, Alton Meyer, are on the run trying to escape both the authorities and the cult they were a part of and to get the boy to a location where something ominous is supposed to happen. The boy has powers, sees visions, hears voices, and strange supernatural/technological events follow him wherever he goes. As in Nichols’ other films, faith in the supernatural and among families in each other are the things that promise to pull the characters through.

Nichols’ films are about all about more than their plots though. Shotgun Stories is about the way violence binds men together. Take Shelter is about the burden of being a husband and father. Mud is about romantic love and its mysteries. Midnight Shelter is about parents losing a child, the way that loss strains the marriage, and how parents can find the strength to let the child go. This is all lightly handled by Nichols. You would be forgiven for missing it amongst the more fantastic elements of the story. In this way, it’s much like George MacDonald’s great book At the Back of the North Wind. That story is fantasy while Midnight Special is science-fiction, but the overall effect is the same – a boy is in touch with another reality, his parents have to reckon with this, and the whole thing is an allegory for losing a child.

After writing that last paragraph, I did quick research to see if Nichols had lost a child. It turns out, in a round-table interview recently, Nichols spoke about how almost losing his young son inspired him to write this story. I didn’t know this when I watched the movie or before I wrote the preceding four paragraphs. I saw it in the film, because that’s where the film’s emotional weight is. Midnight Special is beautifully conceived and carried out in this regard.

Midnight Special is clearly inspired by the kind of family-centric, science-fiction films Steven Spielberg made in the 1970s and 1980s. It has the same otherworldly sense of dread, the same focus on the effect these eerie happenings have on families, a similar cast of characters swirling around the story, and even a similar sense of humor. But Nichols’ writing and direction, cinematographer Adam Stone’s vision, and editor Julie Monroe’s sense of rhythm feel more akin to Wim Wenders’ impressionistic, mid-80s road films than Spielberg’s sprints between elaborate set pieces. There’s more mood in Midnight Special than there is action. The film favors highway lines and streetlights over pyrotechnics and gunfire, though there is some of that as well. The journey is just more important than the destination, as in other road movies. I felt as much Paris, Texas in this as I did Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

If you’ve made it this far into this review, you already know tons more about Midnight Special than I did when I walked into the theater. I avoided everything I could about this movie, because I like to experience the works of filmmakers I admire with as little prior knowledge as possible. I recommend seeing Midnight Special before reading the rest of this review, because I can’t avoid SPOILing a little of the film’s mystery in what I must write about the film’s spiritual resonance.

The boy’s abilities include giving people visions of another reality. This reality isn’t far, far away from our own. It is right on top of it. This conception of two intermingled realities mirrors how early Christians understood the relationship between heaven and earth, and how many Christians understand it now (myself included). Heaven isn’t “up there” or “out there.” It’s here, separate from us only by a thin curtain. As N.T. Wright says in his great book Surprised By Hope, “God’s space and ours interlock and intersect in a whole variety of ways even while they retain, for the moment at least, their separate and distinct identities and roles. One day… they will be joined in a quite new way, open and visible to one another, married together forever.” Midnight Special doesn’t name the other reality “heaven,” but it visualizes this sort of interlocking planes of existence.

This is where Midnight Special’s hope in the face of losing a child comes in again as well. We Christians believe that to lose a loved one to death isn’t to lose them forever, as if that person has been snuffed out of existence, and in this lies our hope. So Midnight Special allegorically deals with losing a child by having that child commune with another manner of existence. Roy and his ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) aren’t losing their child for good. He’s simply stepping across that curtain into another reality, a reality they too are privy and tied to because of their connection with their son. If Midnight Special’s vision of reality feels weird to us, that’s possibly because we have do rarely seen this kind of Christian vision of life and death realized in fiction. Once again, I’d point you to MacDonald’s books and to C.S. Lewis who was immeasurably influenced by MacDonald and featured this kind of vision in his books as well.

Midnight Special is an uncommon film. I encourage you to go see it soon. It’s been out for a few weeks now, and it’s not the kind of movie that sticks around for long. We need more movies like this that creatively envision what we believe in all its weirdness and wonder. Don’t miss it.

You might also find these reviews of Midnight Special helpful:

1 More Film Blog
Christianity Today
Larsen on Film