***This article contains spoilers for the plot and ending of Midnight Special.***
First century Palestine works as a test tube of sorts for the many variations of supernatural belief. For example, the Essenes (known best for preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls) were an ascetic doomsday cult drenched in fanaticism. Their surviving work is apocalyptic, but without the call to ethical, kingdom-living that’s present in biblical apocalyptic literature. The Essenes saw earth as hurtling toward hell; they retreated to the desert to escape it.
Contemporary to the Essenes were the Zealots or revolutionaries of ancient Israel. These individuals viewed the degradation of Jewish rule under the Romans as equally problematic. Israel was God’s property after all, not merely a land bridge between Asia and Africa. Instead of retreating, however, they struck back at their occupiers with violence and insurrection.
These polarizing, radical examples illustrate just how tricky belief is. What’s even trickier is the application of said belief; primarily, as it lays itself out in daily life. How much attention do we give to the world now, and what do we perceive to be the world later?Midnight Special is one of the best films in the last decade to explore the questions of faith and doubt.
If this question seems lofty and esoteric, Jeff Nichols manages to canvas it with skin in his new film, Midnight Special. Midnight Special doesn’t take place in Palestine, but rather, meanders across America’s Bible Belt, meeting and interacting with players struggling to make sense of their own supernatural belief. Some reside at the poles (like the above examples) while others are attempting to work their way through the hazy middle.
The supra-human element in question is an eight-year-old boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton’s not like other eight-year-olds: his eyes emit bluish streaks of light that send individuals into trancelike states of metaphysical ecstasy. He can also control electronic devices and pick up encrypted transmissions from government satellites.
When we’re first introduced to Alton, he’s sitting under a blanket in a dark, cramped hotel room. An Amber Alert on the television tells us he’s been kidnapped by a man named Roy Tomlin (played with a gruff gentleness by Michael Shannon). Roy and his accomplice certainly look the kidnapper part, but it turns out this isn’t a crime; it’s an escape. Roy is Alton’s birth father and the getaway driver is an old friend named Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The trio are on the run from the U.S. government and a Texas cult dubbed “the Ranch.” Both want Alton for their own reasons: the government sees him as an arsenal, the cult as a savior.
We eventually learn the Ranch used Alton as a kind of angelic messenger, scribbling down his babble and labelling it a prophetic word in tongues. The group’s homespun, conservative members believed they were hearing from God; what they were really hearing was classified government chatter (which explains why the government wants Alton).
Because of an anomaly in Alton’s condition, Roy and Lucas move him at night, driving along dark southern roads, and rest during the day in rooms with windows covered with cardboard and duct tape. The film’s first section is dim and mysterious, with Nichols using his trademark slowburn pace and sullen imagery to create a throbbing stillness. The film’s structure works a lot like faith. We’re thrown into the middle of a narrative that began long before we appeared, and we’re left searching for the surface.
The Ranch’s leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd), believes the apocalypse is a few days away, and Alton must be with the group if they want to survive. In a florescent backroom next to the sanctuary, Calvin commissions one of the cult’s leaders, Doak (Bill Camp), to retrieve the boy and bring him back to the compound. “God has placed a heavy burden on you,” he says rather greasily.
Lurking behind the Ranch’s simple façade is a separatist ideology that rivals any Essene. The cult’s San Angelo, Texas compound is far from the Judean desert, but their unadorned white buildings stand alone in the barren foothills — a visual reflection of the group’s disjointed relationship with the outside world.
If the Ranch represents the subculture that may have produced John the Baptist, Nichols casts the government in the Zealot role. Concerned Alton may be a weapon, they plan to capture and study him for national defense. They may not be revolutionaries, but their primary goal isn’t the greater good; it’s power.
Much like Spielberg portrayed government officials rather anonymously in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — we know Peter Coyote’s bigwig executive only as “Keys” — Nichols treats national authority as a faceless, relentless machine. An NSA agent named Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) is an exception to the rule, and another window by which to observe supernatural acceptance. Sevier studies Alton’s powers on paper and possesses the decoded coordinates to prove it — the apologetics, so to speak — but it’s not until he meets the boy that he experiences a change of heart. His propensity for math and science blossoms into personal faith.
Lucas, Roy’s childhood friend, embodies this journey to faith even better than Sevier. One might call Lucas a doubter in the same vein as the Bible’s resident skeptic, Thomas — a mushy intermediate between Essene and Zealot. We don’t know much about this cynical disciple of Jesus, but we do know of his intense loyalty. As Jesus made his last pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Thomas seems to be the only one who understood the situation; “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” he says in John 11:16. After Jesus’ resurrection, however, Thomas chose not to believe until he saw the Master’s hands and feet himself. When Jesus does appear, Thomas’ logic whirls its way into worship. Thomas utters, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
The similarities between Lucas and Thomas seem intentional (Nichols himself grew up Methodist). Lucas is committed — he left his job as a Texas state trooper to help Alton — but he doubts Roy when the latter claims the boy is “meant for something greater.” While separated from Alton, Lucas expresses his doubts to Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). “[Roy] believes in something; you don’t,” Sarah argues. “It doesn’t matter,” he responds. “Good people die everyday believing in things.” Lucas has seen what Alton can do and knows his power, but it’s a lifeless faith.
Then Alton returns. About halfway through the film, he experiences a resurrection of sorts. Roy, summoning the shells of his faith, carries Alton outside during the daylight. As the sun rises, David Wingo’s damp score slices into a triumphant chorus. The ground trembles. Alton meets the day, and for a brief second, our world converges with another. Alton now understands his origin; he belongs to a realm that’s behind and through our world. In a modern-day recreation of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas, Alton later shows Lucas his glowing palms — his glorified body. The camera cuts back to Lucas, Edgerton’s expression fills with simultaneous wonder and awe. The former agnostic cries, “I believe you.”
Toward the film’s end, the group, now four with Sarah, races toward a destination charted by Alton’s visions. It’s time to give Alton away and send him where he belongs. The Ranch, failing to retrieve Alton, has disappeared from the story without any explanation — a possible error on Nichols’ part but more likely a calculated reflection of their separatist ideology.
In the Florida swamplands, Alton’s reality and our reality collide, and for a few moments, everyone sees into the realm beyond all sense. Nichols’ muted production design clashes with the sleek metallic structures of Alton’s new home. This is unlike anything we’ve seen from the director so far; his previous films — Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud — were all set in rural communities. While the visual effects and awe don’t reach Spielbergian levels, the point is clear: there is something bigger at work behind the scenes.
The film’s final shots are sobering but ring true. Roy and Lucas are in prison, having given up everything to ensure Alton’s safety. The ending we expect — for the government to realize their error and set the men free — never happens. Instead, Roy and Lucas are left to yearn for the unseen kingdom, but to not fully realize it yet.
Jeff Nichols argues that Midnight Special isn’t a “faith-based film,” and this is true, but the movie’s roots in supernatural belief present a worldview that is surprisingly rich and deeply spiritual. For all its plot gaps, Midnight Special is one of the best films in the last decade to explore the questions of faith and doubt.
Alton’s journey, and the journey of those around him, sees beyond the Essene and Zealot, and instead envisions a third path that acknowledges both the kingdom without and the importance of not selfishly seeking to either separate or accumulate physical power from within. Midnight Special begs the question: how do we traverse the temptation for unimpeded rule and/or judgmental avoidance?
In a pluralistic society that tends to view religion as either power-hungry or detached from the general public, Midnight Special gets into the dirt of belief’s path toward realization and application. It also says something to our culture’s incessant desire to find purely scientific answers to deep philosophical issues, as well as our reluctance to acknowledge the spiritual even when its traces thread through the core of our existence. Belief is a struggle, yes. It’s a struggle to acknowledge our doubts. It’s a struggle to allocate belief in others — as Roy, Lucas, and Sarah do with Alton — while preventing it from becoming a narcissistic extension of our own desires. In this way, Midnight Special, possibly unknowingly, visualizes what Christians call the Kingdom. It is at hand, but not yet. We live for it now, but we also look forward to it later.
And like Lucas, to begin this journey, all one must do is look at a set of palms and cry: “I believe you.”