Midnight Special, the latest film from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) left me contemplating my favorite quote from the already legendary first season of True Detective, in which Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle contemplates aloud “The hubris it must take to yank a soul out of non-existence into this meat, and to force a life into this thresher.”
Midnight Special deals in a similar sentiment, exploring the disparity between the limitless, untarnished potential of a child and the quarantined, defined, segregated world they’re birthed into. The movie follows Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Egderton) as they traverse the American southeast with Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) whose supernatural gifts have them on the run from a cult, the FBI, the NSA and your garden variety law enforcement.
It’s small scale science fiction, less spaceships and lasers than boarded-up windows and police scanners, but it deals with sprawling, massive themes.
How massive? Alton is the personification of all of human potential. He’s the living embodiment of the unending possibility each human life contains before it’s brought into the world and boxed in by qualifications and categories. Roy isn’t just whisking his son away from the military and the intelligence community and religious institutions, he’s whisking him away from being tagged and numbered and sent off on an assembly line of a life. He’s prolonging as best he can the amount of time between the limitless possibilities every parent hopes their child will have and the railroad tracks the world can seem so intent on settling us onto.
With Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols offers a feature film length contemplation of the selfishness and selflessness of having a kid. There are tense and thrilling moments, excellent acting and a fantastic score that will really open up your subwoofer, but underneath all of that there is a difficult conversation about what it means to bring a life into the world we live in. It’s a complicated, many-faceted conversation to have in your own head, much less on the big screen, but Midnight Special grapples with the philosophy and the contradictions of it all admirably, all under the guise of a tense fugitive thriller.