Midnight Special, director Jeff Nichols’ latest offering, premieres today, and if you’d somehow missed this film on your radar, I strongly urge you to go see it, because it’s fantastic. But I’m not here to review it or sing its praises, but rather to focus on an aspect of Jeff Nichols’ filmmaking that is often overlooked, and is perhaps Midnight Special’s secret strength: his fairness.
In many ways, Midnight Special feels like a spiritual successor to his previous films, Take Shelter, and even Mud. It’s set in the South with a blue-collar cast, but, rather than a grown man having visions, as in Take Shelter, this time, it’s a little boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). And, as is usual any time a character with outlandish powers pops up on humanity’s radar, various organizations decide to chase down the boy for their own reasons.
But that’s where the normal tropes end in regard to how people deal with the little boy’s powers. The narrative is really three-fold, following each of those groups with a vested interest in the boy. First is Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) and his fanatic, cult-like church group in whose fold Alton grew up. As Alton’s powers started to manifest themselves, Calvin took the boy’s ramblings and built his weekly sermons around them. The NSA is also after the boy, as Calvin’s sermons actually contain highly sensitive, coded information regarding about some of the U.S. government’s most closely-guarded secrets. Lastly, it follows the boy himself, having been “kidnapped” by his own father, Roy (Michael Shannon), from the ranch in order to get Alton to the specific set of coordinates he’s received in a vision by a certain date also received from otherworldly means. Roy is aided by his best friend, Luke (Joel Edgerton), and Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst).
It’s a set-up that practically begs for stock “bad” characters and a trope “good people vs. evil organizations” storyline. Traditionally, government agencies chasing after a film’s protagonist have only been portrayed in negative terms, shadowy, nebulous entities that are hellbent on silencing those they see as threats and cleaning up their mistakes no matter the cost. Likewise, religion, particularly fringe sects or mega-institutions, has also gotten a bad rap in how its been portrayed in film.
But from the start, Nichols is exceptionally fair in how he portrays the people involved, and it’s a common theme that runs throughout his films. Humanity is never reduced to an oversimplified version of itself in order to make it more digestible to a mass audience in Nichols’ films. Rather, he always views human nature through a forgiving lens – very few things are entirely black and white, and the motivations of people are laced with sympathy, even if those motivations lead them to do exceptionally bad things.
The government agency isn’t a ruthless, faceless corporation. A very real face is given to it in the form of Adam Driver’s codebreaker and analyst, Sevier. Not a cold and unfeeling suit, Sevier is inquisitive, with a genuine interest in getting to the bottom of things while keeping a completely open mind. He simply wants the truth, in whatever form that truth takes. Paul Sparks plays his temporary partner, Agent Miller, with a sort of world-weary patience. The overworked and exasperated man is as confused as everyone else. But it’s his job to retrieve the boy, and that’s what he intends to do. Between Sevier’s puppy-like awkwardness and Miller’s frustration, they upend the “men in black” trope. The two men are not intimidating, have no intention of hurting anyone, don’t particularly care to play the “bad cop” angle, and don’t want to situation to escalate. They just want to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
A faction of the church is, admittedly, a bit harder to empathize with, but still, their humanity is there. Calvin, despite being a godly man, is nonetheless much more willing to employ ruthless means to retrieve Alton than Agent Miller and Sevier. He sends his two trusted, right-hand men, Doak (Bill Camp) and Levi (Scott Haze) on a mission to hunt down the boy by whatever means necessary. But even Calvin shows a moment of self-awareness when he tells Doak he knows he’s putting much, perhaps too much, upon his friend’s shoulders, asking him to do the impossible. While Levi’s robotic-like fanaticism and adherence to the mission is tougher to stomach, Doak is no religious zealot. “I was an electrician,” he laments when it appears he won’t be able to avoid violence. He may be doing God’s bidding, but he’s not happy about it. He’s a man completely in over his head and having serious second thoughts about where he’s ended up in life.
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Likewise, during interviews that Sevier and Miller have with the various church members, they all come across as genuinely good-hearted, kind people, if odd. You get the sense that the majority of them would be horrified if they were ever to learn of the extremes to which Calvin was willing to go to retrieve Alton. Not fanatics with an inability to question right from wrong if it served “God,” but a relatively gentle group that largely just wanted to be left alone.
The result is that for such a relatively small, self-contained story, it becomes something more. The scope of it becomes bigger than had the narrative only been sympathetic to and fleshed out Alton and his parents, with both the government and church being reduced to typical, two-dimensional organizations. It’s not a matter of how Alton’s powers affect only himself and his family, but how a discovery of that magnitude would affect the world at large. Right now, entertainment is enmeshed in a love affair with gritty reality, but Nichols offers a different spin on that concept. The realism of Midnight Special isn’t built upon the dark, dirty aspects of human nature, but upon the better, more sympathetic ones. In doing so, Nichols opens us up to a whole other side of human nature that is all too often overlooked in modern-day filmmaking.