I had a really interesting conversation yesterday with a friend about the subjectivity of film reviewing and how the baggage you carry with you influences your judgement of a film. I’m not sure he totally agreed with me but we then watched Midnight Special and, for me, my bias was clear. My sister asked me to see this film as she wanted to talk to me about it’s metaphor and metaphorical it certainly is. At least it has to be otherwise it doesn’t really make sense.Midnight Special is directed by Jeff Nichols, who directed Mud (that slow burn drama about fatherhood) and stars a few well-known names although it has the feel of an indie film. It begins enigmatically in what seems to be the middle of a story. Two men have kidnapped an eight year old boy and are on the run. A religious cult of pastel-dressed women with long braids and ominous suited men want the child and will use any means to recover him. The government suspect that the boy has intercepted top secret satellite transmissions and want to find him. The boy, Alton, wears swimming goggles and cannot go out into daylight. So far, so strange, except that I’d seen the words ‘sci-fi’ and ‘supernatural’ used to describe this film so I felt I knew where it was heading.
And head there it does. There are beams of light shining from eyes, missiles from the sky, buildings that crack apart and altered realities. There isn’t much explanation and what there is doesn’t always make sense. Coordinates, satellites, radio frequencies, a race to be at a particular place at a particular time for something unspecified but important. There are narrative absurdities that defy logic – people shot in the chest at point blank range who brush themselves off and continue as if nothing has happened, government that is all knowing and all powerful but conveniently inept.
Many of the secondary characters are relatively superficial – evil cult leaders, evil government heavies, traitorous friends – and at the core are four archetypes; the father (Michael Shannon), the mother (Kirsten Dunst); the loyal friend (Joel Edgerton) and the reluctant believer (Adam Driver). We never find out too much about them, who they are, where they have come from and why they are acting as they do and I suspect this is because their place in the film are as symbols rather than characters.
If you take this film at face value, it’s not great. There are aspects I liked, the slow reveal of purpose (although this began to drag) and the leisurely pace, but it is only as a metaphor that the haphazard pieces of the narrative begin to come together. So what is the metaphor? For me it seemed obvious, if a little heavy handed. The boy is faith or belief or Christ or spirit, something spiritual or metaphysical that is seen by ‘the system’ as a weapon to be controlled, by the cult as a source of power over others, and only by true believers as a way of salvation. It needs to be held to despite all evidence to the contrary, allows you to survive the weapons of adversaries, will be recognised by people of goodness whose eyes are open. It will sustain you through adversity. This is where my bias becomes apparent. If I believed in the power of faith/belief/Christ/spirit, I suspect I would have liked this film a lot more. If it had given me comfort about the rightness of how I see the world I would have been more inclined to overlook any weaknesses of plot or characterisation.
My sister had a different take about the metaphor. She sees it as a comment on patriarchy, that the child is the recognition of the feminine, the essence that connects to nature and nurtures and protects the child, family, environment, world. The film explores the father’s realisation of this, the crumbling of patriarchy in the face of it, the mother’s ability to complete the journey, the possibility of a different world. I can see how fatherhood is a key theme here, and in other films of Nichols. The only aspect that jars for me is the lack of female voice in a film about the shortcomings of patriarchy. Maybe this is the point (overloading the film with male voices and narrative so that we see this is about a necessary journey for men) but really it is indiscernible from every other film blind to its patriarchal bias.
I’m glad I saw this film. It makes me a little less blind to my own bias.
Bechdel test – fail