Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
O Lord my God, in you I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols begins his film well into the story. An 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has been abducted by his father Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) from the Ranch, an isolated community where a religious sect ruled over by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) had taken custody of the boy two years earlier. Roy and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) had been divorced, apparently when she had joined the sect. She has managed to escape, but was unable to take Alton with her because Calvin had the boy under his thumb.
Roy is assisted by his best friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper convinced that what they are doing is for the boy’s best interest. Calvin has dispatched two members of the sect to get the boy back, Levi (Scott Haze) and Doak (Bill Camp). Alton possesses strange powers, and thus is regarded as a prophet, one from whom Calvin expects to profit. Although they do not understand the boy, Roy and Lucas plan to take the Alton to an undetermined location on a specific date where something important is to take place.
Also trying to apprehend the three fugitives are agents of the Federal government. FBI Agent Miller (Paul Sparks), aware that the cult had been stockpiling a great number of guns, leads a small army of well armed agents to round up the religious cult’s members and bus them to a high school gym where they are detained for questioning. Somehow Calvin’s sermons based on Alton’s prophecies and sets of numbers quoted in them include some secret government codes. Thus they are anxious to learn how and why the boy knows of this information. NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) also is participating, setting up his base at the Fed’s office in Mobile, Alabama. As the mission’s lead operations analyst Sevier thinks the special powered boy might be a dangerous weapon.
The Feds have issued an Amber Alert on the trio to the media, so Roy has to be careful when they stop for gas and supplies. As the three head East across the Southern states, they stop to help a victim in a wrecked car, which leads to a shootout with a state trooper; they narrowly escape the flaming debris of a satellite that falls on the gas station that they stop at for supplies; and then after a potentially deadly run-in with the pair of religious fanatics who have traced them to a motel, they have to give chase in order to retrieve Alton. They also reconnect with Alton’s mother Sarah, who though fearful, is overjoyed to see her son again.
At the beginning of the flight through the night Alton appeared like any normal boy, in the car’s backseat glued to his Superman comic. However he wears tinted swimming goggles and headphones, the latter apparently to cancel outside noise. As the story progresses over the next few days it becomes obvious that, as the boy explains, he is from a higher plane. Roy and Sarah are his biological parents, but his true home is elsewhere. To return to it he must get to a certain spot within four days.
During the series of exciting events leading up to the climax, not only does he convince Roy, Sarah, and Lucas of this, but also, when he falls into the hands of the Feds, Paul Sevier as well. The latter helps him to re-unite with his parents and Lucas in the Florida panhandle. When they at last reach the coast of the Gulf of Mexico something awesome happens. Even if you had not thought of them before now, the film’s enigmatic boy will remind you of both E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind–but with far more violence.
There are some tender moments between father and son in the film that lift this above the usual sci-fi thriller. Roy has given his all to secure the safety of his son, only to learn that he must give up the boy to a mysterious fate if the boy is truly to be safe. As they reach the end of their journey Alton tells his father that he does not have to worry about him anymore. Roy replies, “I like worrying about you,” thus expressing well the sentiment of every father and mother for their children, no matter how old or far away they travel.
The film is a story of faith, as well as love, but is not the twisted faith of Calvin and his fanatical followers. Hebrews puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” None of those helping Alton can see their goal; they can only hope that they can reach it despite the enormous obstacles in their way.
The filmmaker does let us see their destination, Alton’s future home, in that spectacular vision at the end. It is debatable whether this is too much or not, that maybe the filmmaker should have held back. (I remember feeling this way when Steven Spielberg in his director’s version of Close Encounters added the scene in which we are shown Roy Neary inside the mother ship. It was a lovely scene, but not at all necessary.)
During most of the film director Jeff Nichols does hold back, offering very little explanation for what is happening. He trusts his audience to be able to piece things together from the sparse dialogue and action. This makes this a film truly to treasure. In his remarkable film Mud the director gave us a boy truly of Mississippi. In this one he treats us to a boy who, in the words of Jim Reeves’ song, “This world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through.” Nichols leaves us to wrestle with the connection between the old prison song that gives its name to his film. “Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me”—there is no train with its headlight piercing the dark in the film, so what does the “light” mean? The fate of Roy and Lukas does not seem a happy one, and yet they do not seem depressed or defeated. Is it because they both were enveloped in the light and believed in their mission of getting Alton to where he belonged? Are they worthy enough to be included in Isaiah’s visionary statement “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined”?
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of VP.