Film review: Midnight Special, directed by Jeff Nichols
April 14, 2016
2016 could prove to be a banner year for Jeff Nichols: his upcoming film Loving is already being discussed as an Oscar contender, and Midnight Special is his first film for a major studio. Warner Bros. has put its promotional weight behind Midnight Special in a way they seldom do for mid-budget films; much has been made of cinema’s ‘squeezed middle’ and how it is stifling the traditional breeding ground for fresh talent, but at just thirty-seven Nichols has made a string of exceptional films which belie their modest budgets.
Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011) filtered a Southern Gothic sensibility through the dark lyricism of Terrence Malick and the hard-bitten aesthetic of directors like John Ford and Clint Eastwood; Nichols was also instrumental in the career resurgence of Matthew McConaughey with Mud (2012). Nichols was in contention to direct DC’s Aquaman, but balked at the restrictions that come with entering the DC universe. Nichols considers himself ‘a group kinda guy’, working with the same tight-knit crew on every film.
Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is an eight-year-old boy who possesses special powers: he is capable of telekinesis and intercepting encrypted signals with his mind. Believing him to be a conduit for something larger, a cult has grown up around Alton. Alton and his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), escape the cult’s compound and go on the run with the help of Roy’s childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who is now a state trooper. As they travel to meet Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), the FBI raids the compound and NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) is tasked with finding Alton; while the church sends two of its operatives to track down the boy before he fulfils an apocalyptic prophesy.
Midnight Special signals Nichols’ intent to broaden his appeal while staying true to his distinct vision, functioning as a dry run for the kind of tent-pole fare that will surely figure in his future. It is a paean to the populist Sci-Fi of directors like Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, invoking films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Starman (1984) without simply being a string of reference points, managing to be unsettling and ethereal in equal measure. But what sets Nichols apart from his influences is an aversion to both sentimentality and exposition; he is willing to test what he calls the ‘threshold of ambiguity’, allowing small non-verbal signifiers to articulate character detail and relationships. Midnight Special does not eschew this approach, throwing its audience into the story and allowing it to unfold of its own momentum.
Midnight Special is not just a step up for Nichols, but also his staple crew: cinematographer Adam Stone can harness light like few others, capturing lush Southern skylines which benefit from being shot on film; while David Wingo creates an atmospheric, Carpenter-esque score which rumbles ominously and augments Jeremy Bowker’s sterling sound design. Shannon is to Nichols what De Niro was to Scorsese, and he delivers a beautifully brittle performance here as a man stoically bearing a tremendous weight; Edgerton is a terse male lead of ’60s vintage, so it comes as no surprise that he slots so easily into the Nichols universe; Dunst gives a careworn performance which excels in the scenes with her and Shannon, offering a masterclass in gesture and inflection; Driver steers clear of quirkiness in a role that could so easily have strayed into that territory; and Lieberher – previously seen alongside Bill Murray in St. Vincent (2014) – evinces an otherworldly quality with great maturity.
Midnight Special is a stirring synthesis of Nichols’ realist impulses with a sense of the uncanny, using genre tropes to explore themes close to Nichols’ heart. It establishes Nichols and his collaborators as a filmmaking unit capable of operating on an ambitious scale without losing their identity, treading the threshold of ambiguity in a way that intrigues rather than alienates. It remains to be seen if Nichols’ elliptical, character-driven approach to writing can connect with a mainstream audience – or survive rigorous test screening – but he has proven himself capable of helming a film featuring elaborate set pieces and multiple visual effects. As the Star Wars universe continues to expand, recruiting accomplished young directors like Rian Johnson and Gareth Edwards, there must be a place for a director of such artistry as Nichols. He may even get the opportunity to do some universe building of his own.
Follow Daniel Palmer on Twitter at @mrdmpalmer.