When The Dark Knight Rises came out a few years ago, I remember reading a blog post someone wrote detailing all of the continuity and logical errors in it. I loved it: the essay was a little mean but also very funny and true. Because The Dark Knight Rises, when thought about for longer than, I don’t know, three minutes, doesn’t really make any sense.
Midnight Special doesn’t make any sense at all.
In college, I went to see Source Code with my friends. The movie takes place in Chicago, where I am from, mostly on a Metra train, which I’ve regularly ridden for a number of years. Suffice it to say that Source Code in and of itself is a tough cookie to crack: it’s Groundhog Day on a train with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to stop a bomb from going off. There’s a romantic subplot (of course) and at least two twists (certainly), but what I couldn’t get over was the fact that the Metra trains in Source Code are carpeted. Carpeted! As if Metra trains would ever be carpeted!
I left the theater wildly disappointed and I can remember walking back up the campus of my college, going, “Nothing in that movie made any sense and it ruined the whole thing!”
Midnight Special is about an abduction. Roy (Michael Shannon) has taken his 8 year old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). The entire state of Texas is looking for Alton. The police are searching, the government is searching. Roy is accompanied by his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who serves as the muscle; Lucas drives, Lucas fights, Lucas shoots. The three travel by night in a beat up old car. They keep the lights off. They use night vision goggles. There’s some place they have to be.
Keeping up so far? Good. Let’s kick it up a notch.
You see, Alton is a very special boy. He’s a special child in the way that only movie children are special. He hears radio frequencies. He can shoot light from his eyes. He can do… almost anything, it seems, because as a viewer, we only get a taste of what we know Alton is capable of. And because Alton is a special child, it’s not just the police and the government looking for him. The cult he and his father escaped from are tracking them, too.
So, there are quite a few elements at play here. We’ve got a magical-and-or-alien child on the run with his father and a friend—and the police, FBI, and a mysterious cult all in hot pursuit. Where are they going? Hard to say. Why are they going there? Mm, that’s a tough one too. And what are these people seeing, really, I mean, really, when Alton shoots light out of his eyes? I don’t know what to tell you.
There is a very famous episode from the fourth season of the television show Lost called “The Constant.” To explain it to a non-Lost viewer is perhaps a failed endeavor, but I’ll try: one of the much-beloved characters on the show, Desmond, suffered an untimely breakup before being stranded on the island. Since his disappearance, his ex, Penny, has poured every resource imaginable into trying to find him for several years.
In “The Constant,” through a glitch (or whatever) in the time-space continuum (or something––keep in mind this is Lost we’re talking about), Desmond is given the opportunity to go back in time and right some of the wrongs in his relationship with Penny. He can’t fix everything, but he can try to set things right. He tells her, however, that in a certain number of years, he’s going to call her from a freighter after having been missing on the island for three years. It sounds insane, he tells Penny, but he’s going to do it.
And lo and behold, in the final moments of the episode, Desmond calls her. And despite the time-travel, reality-switching, logic-leaping conclusions made in the episode, it works. Not the phone call, though that, of course, does work for Desmond and Penny. I mean, the episode. My inability to explain the logic of it aside, “The Constant” is well-regarded as one of the finest episodes of Lost. It doesn’t make any sense, of course. It should say a lot that I’ve seen this episode at least ten times and can still barely explain the premise of it. And yet, it’s sincere, it’s heartfelt, it’s perfect. It’s storytelling, and maybe sometimes stories don’t have to explain themselves to you.
Paul Sevier (Adam Driver—perfect) is our compass to Midnight Special. He’s our guide. He has very little screen time compared to the Meyer family, but he’s what we need to make sense of it all. Or no sense, really.
Sevier works with the NSA—he’s an analyst or a researcher, something like that—and he’s been put in charge of this case of a mysterious boy who’s managed to overhear the most confidential of confidential government transmissions. Sevier has every right to be hard and pressing and confused; why wouldn’t he be? Except… he’s not. Sevier is curious, almost delighted. There’s a sense of wonder that pulls the character forward into his exploration of what Alton Meyer is or could be.
He suspends his disbelief, if only for a little while, so we join him.
Things in real life that make no sense to me but I feel the emotional impact of every day of my life:
- My first major breakup
- The 2016 election
- What happens when we die
- Where that one red shirt of mine went
There’s a trend in film I’ve taken a vast disliking to which mimics the “villain explains his plot in a big speech” trope except it’s “movies explain their whole plot in a big speech” these days. So many movies do this. They announce: “here’s why there’s a movie.” I don’t care why there’s a movie! Don’t you understand? I’m happy enough that there are movies; call me naive but I don’t need a reason at all. You don’t need to tell me which infinity stone we’re on. Let me see some good guys fight bad guys.
Midnight Special has several opportunities to sit you down and say, “Look: here’s the deal.” It could even give us part of the deal. I would argue Midnight Special gives out no deals. We have characters say, “yes, I understand,” without the viewers fully on board. But they believe. These characters believe so truly and purely in the power of Alton––and perhaps, even more so, his father’s love––that we don’t need the lecture. We just need them to get the job done.
I cry every single time I rewatch “The Constant.”
We never even find out what or who the midnight special is. I mean, come on.
Midnight Special doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t have to. It’s not about sense and logic. It’s not about solving a big twist. I could spoil it, maybe, if I wanted to, but the outcome of it all doesn’t really matter. A very strange and mysterious boy is transported across the country by his father who loves him so much and is willing to risk everything––everything!––to make sure this happens safely.
“You don’t have to worry about me anymore,” Alton warns his father at the end of the film. There’s a wiseness to Alton. A knowingness. He’s not a savior, no. That’s not right. But he sees more than we can. He gets it, but he’s an 8 year old.
“I like worrying about you,” Roy admits, and the most hesitant and heartfelt smile of Michael Shannon’s career spreads across Roy’s face. Midnight Special asks us to like worrying about the characters. It asks us to enjoy it. And we do this, willingly, because we too buy into the myth of Alton. We want him to be safe and happy, wherever he belongs. There’s a tapestry of details we’re missing, a logic inherently gone, but I cannot overemphasize enough how much that isn’t the point. It’s a fable. It’s a story. It’s a movie. We’re there to believe.