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'Midnight Special' is a better film about faith than 'faith-based' films

Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst play parents trying to save their superpowered son (Jaeden Liberher) in the latest from "Take Shelter"'s Jeff Nichols.

‘Midnight Special’
Director:
Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst
Rating: PG-13
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Viewers have to put their faith in “Midnight Special” themselves: It’s a film where key bits of intel are parceled out gradually, including who people are and what they’re doing. We start off thinking Roy is a mere kidnapper, and only learn he’s his dad a bit later; we assume Sam Shepard is just another hissable government stooge before learning he’s an oily cult pastor. Watching it is to spend most of its length lost in a deeply complicated world, picking things up along the way, and even then not being entirely sure where it’s going.

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Being lost can be freeing, but also frustrating, particularly the way Alton’s many, many powers keep piling up. What can’t he do? Less vexing is the way it avoids delving too far into backstory. We don’t learn much about Roy and Sarah in the before-time except which is absolutely necessary at any given moment. We just know they’re motivated by strong parental ties; they’ll do anything for their son, even kill or die for him. Meanwhile Lucas remains a fascinating enigma — a disciple willing to do the same for something even he doesn’t fully get.

When all (or, really, most) of the jigsaw pieces are in place, “Midnight Special” can almost seem simple. But it’s still modest. It’s not self-pleased with itself; it quietly and carefully goes about its business making a renegade blockbuster, where special effects and the odd explosion or shoot-out gently invades an otherwise placid, precisely shot film with an “indie” look. The performances are beautiful without showing off; Dunst in particular manages to be both traumatized and strong at the same time.

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Like all the characters she rarely gets the chance to put her feelings into words, and the film is just as subtle about letting deeper ideas rise organically out of the narrative. It’s not just a film exploring faith; it’s about parents being so devoted to their offspring they would do things that would otherwise go against their conscience. It’s a film that forces you to pay attention and to let you read too much into it, and it does it without even seeming to try.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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