Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst
3 (out of 5) Globes
This is a strange time for movies — an era when the only films guaranteed to hit multiplexes are superhero movies, YA movies, kids movies and “faith-based” cinema. (Sorry, rom-coms, issue dramas and Nicholas Sparks movies, all increasingly thin on the ground.) The latter has swollen in power over the last few years. Some have studio money and actual stars (“Risen,” this week’s “Miracles from Heaven”); some are rough-and-tumble no-budgeters starring the cut-rate, “remember him?” likes of Kevin Sorbo (“God’s Not Dead”). No one would question these films’ evangelical bona fides, but they’re not really about faith. They’re there to flatter and coddle their target audience’s beliefs, not question them.
Meanwhile the indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols has been quietly cranking out actual movies about faith, and for snooty, mostly secular art house audiences, no less. Thing is, they’re not about faith in terms of religion. They are, however, about people whose belief in the supernatural — in a world that’s more than what lies in front of our eyes — turns out to be totally justified. “Take Shelter” depicted a family man (Michael Shannon) who swears he’s been having apocalyptic visions, only to (spoiler!) be proven not insane in the final scene.
Nichols’ new “Midnight Special” does something similar but with a retro popcorn entertainment — one part ’80s Spielberg, part John Carpenter’s Spielbergian “Starman.” It follows Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, the not remotely annoying kid Bill Murray bro’d down with in “St. Vincent”), a boy with mysterious superpowers — powers so strong and diverse (he can hear radio signals! he can shoot hypnotic blue rays from his eyes! he can blow up orbiting satellites with his mind!) that he’s sought by pesky government agents and rifle-toting religious fanatics alike.
When the film begins, Alton’s been “kidnapped” from a cult that has been using him for their own purposes. His abductor is Roy (Michael Shannon again), his biological father, who has taken him on the road along a devoted friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Alton has claimed he needs to be at a certain point in rural Texas on a certain day, at which time he’ll achieve some obscure destiny even he doesn’t understand. And so “Midnight Special” becomes a film about people who have to ignore a shortage of evidence and wholly commit to an idea that’s fantastical and otherworldly — much like organized religion itself.