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Surveillance Troubles in 'Midnight Special'

In just a few precisely composed scenes, you see at the start of Midnight Special that however disjointed plot points might seem, they are connected in an intricate web of ideas and images.

Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-03-18 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-04-08 (General Release)

"You all don't know what you're dealing with, do you?" Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) sits in a concrete walled room, opposite an FBI agent and a guy from NSA. Calvin doesn't quite smile, but the turn of his mouth and the furrow of his brow suggest his disdain. You believe him. No, they don't know what they're dealing with.

Then again, you don't either. At this early point in Midnight Special, you know a few things. Calvin leads a cult, a population ensconced at a place in Texas called the Ranch, where the women wear long, button-down dresses (the surest movie-sign of a cult). FBI agent Miller (Paul Sparks) and NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) are looking for eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), abducted from the Ranch by his dad, Roy (Michael Shannon), and a friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The several pieces of this puzzle so far are related only as they form a basic pursuit plot. In just a few precisely composed and consistently exquisite scenes, you see as well that however disjointed plot points might be at present, they are connected in an intricate web of ideas and images.

That web is not necessarily logical or very subtle. Some of what goes on here is sensational and eerily topical; see, for instance, filmmaker Jeff Nichols' previous excursions into obsession, faith, and fear in Shotgun Stories or Take Shelter, or maybe even in Malick. Some of it resembles other movies, most flagrantly, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., as it turns out that Alton's value to Calvin and the feds has to do with his apparent otherworldliness. On the one hand, he shows this in conventional movie ways: he appears to channel radio signals, his eyes produce a bright white light that translates to those who see it as a brilliant sort of truth that cannot be communicated so you can wholly understand it.

Trouble in communication propels such stories, as plots lead to a crucial connection or a momentous understanding. Here, though, the trouble is less a point of departure or obstacle than a constant and, at last, an epiphany. What you don't understand, what's not resolved, matters most. True, the film does resort at last to some too literal representations of what no one can describe (slender figures seemingly made of light, a world of sleek, frictionless surfaces). But that rather makes the point, that it's impossible to conceive experience so other, so transcendent.

Indeed, the film's compelling insight is not any imagining of what might be, but instead, what is, as people find ways to express themselves even as language fails them. The focus on this other expression creates another story, a story of what movies, and really, only movies and images, can do, which is to show faces, close, provocative, ecstatic. Of course this begins with Michael Shannon, who has a face unlike anyone else's.

As if to frame that story, Midnight Special opens on no faces at all, but on a black screen, over which you hear a series of voices and sounds well-known to anyone who's ever listened to local TV, ads and news reports. As the scene fades in to a motel room with a peephole that's been taped over, you see who's listening with you, Lucas with a gun, Roy with a bag packed, Alton with a comic book, which he's reading under a bed-sheet by way of a flashlight. As the TV reports Alton's Amber Alert, the three make their way outside to a vehicle, muscle-car loud. The camera follows them, their movements deliberate and un-panicked, suggesting they're accustomed to at least part of this routine. In the back seat of the car, framed from his dad's perspective so he looks particularly small and centered, Alton reads his comic book.

Much of what follows might be categorized as more plotting you've seen before, perhaps especially once Alton and his dad find his mom, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), whose backstory is this: she left the Ranch, where she and Roy lived together until their son became an object of particular desire, while Roy stayed behind, to keep at least a semblance of a watch on what Calvin and his followers did to Alton, in seeing him as a sign of a coming apocalypse. Now that the government is guessing he's a weapon, her family's troubles are redoubled, for the full force of surveillance from space is visited upon them.

This trouble in surveillance intersects with the trouble in communication, literally in the machines that might produce and impede both, and metaphorically, as all these machines produce information that is -- that can only be -- misunderstood. As much data as the cult and the government gather and decipher, as much as they both work feverishly to track their target, they also miss the potential meanings of that target, the consequences of their own actions, and the limits of their own comprehension. Blinded by faith, in religion, science, or their own rightness, they can't see what's in front of them.

This again goes to what movies can do. As many movies as you've seen, as thrilling or disappointing as action or effects might be, as much as you might be surprised or fulfilled, seeing Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst's faces here, shaped and reshaped by loss, longing, and overwhelming gentleness, is a revelation.


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