With just three films under his belt, writer/director Jeff Nichols has charmed critics in each one with brilliantly executed southern tales that have solidified him as one of the best filmmakers currently working today. Michael Shannon has been his consistent thread through the films, all starting in 2007’s Shotgun Stories, a violent piece of work about a family of feuding brothers. Four years later Shannon starred in his thriller Take Shelter, a brilliant mystery which was really the film that put him on the map. His rise to prominence was given a huge boost when he released Mud, an astounding dramatic film nestled right in the middle of Matthew McConaughey’s career renaissance, possibly being his best film ever. It was clear that the critic was on Jeff Nichols after that one.
Now Nichols returns with the full faith of Warner Brothers behind him and his highest budget feature yet. Back in the driver’s seat is the ever amazing Michael Shannon to pair once again with Nichols. Joining Shannon is the criminally uncelebrated Joel Edgerton, who is continuing his slow burn rise in Hollywood. Together these two are captivating in a film that is being marketed as pretty mainstream but to those who know this Arkansas director’s work, the end result is anything but.
Midnight Special throws you in to the mix right away with limited explanation. Roy Tomlin (Shannon) and his accomplice Lucas (Edgerton) are on the run, heading to a mysterious destination with Alton, a pale and quiet boy wearing goggles, played by newcomer Jaeden Lieberher. The twist is that Alton was abducted from a religious compound and from his adopted father Calvin Meyer, their leader. The boy is being sought after by members of the ranch desperate to bring him back into their grips and the National Security Agency, in the form of analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).
Alton is gifted with extraordinary powers which come through in many forms. He finds himself slipping into trances, which the people of the ranch assume he’s speaking in tongues. The reality is that he is receiving radio waves that he is vocalizing, some of which include coordinates which correspond to the place Roy and Lucas are desperately trying to get him to by the date Alton keeps repeating, Friday March 6th. He also experiences a massive light that shoots out of his eyes when he’s exposed to sunlight, causing all his life to be carried out under a cover of darkness, making it a bit less stressful to keep off of the grid for Roy, who, as it turns out, is Alton’s biological father.
The best thing working for Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ impeccable writing and direction blended with the deep character acting that each player in this film reflects. Every person in this film has a well defined character arc, whether it’s shown right out in the open or is more subtle one and reveals itself to you upon reflection after you’ve left the theatre. Jeff Nichols’ storytelling is always taking unexpected turns and never resolves anywhere you think it will but still feels immensely satisfying. It’s a glaring reminder that only a few of these important directors with purely original visions usually get shelved for the “yesmen” filmmakers. This is why we must cherish films like Midnight Special.
One of the things I really dug in this almost Spielberg feel of a film is Nichols having a reserved nature to his storytelling. Yes, we do have a heavy science fiction element to the plot that is absolutely integral but the focus is every character’s emotional state and that’s where the large focus remains. It’s not about action sequences, car chases or bombastic explosions but more of what ramifications these events have on our characters going forward, which translates directly in to the combined journey us the viewer is taken on. I would have never expected to feel as much in another sci-fi film as I did in Midnight Special.
My concern is that Jeff Nichols in his arthouse style will deter the casual viewer by not having the flash and bang that have been common place in the genre since it’s inception and it’s something I definitely have to applaud him for, the balls to try something different. Unlike the arthouse horror films like The Witch and Goodnight Mommy, which defy the main genre, Midnight Special is undeniably a tale of the unexplained, worthy of its classing. At the end of the film I was left agog, wondering what this brilliant mind would churn out next within the southern American back drop he’s so accustomed to now. We also must remember that Warner Brothers was courting him at one time to be the man to helm their Aquaman movie. Arthouse meets DC Comics, really, what would that have been like?
I have deep down hopes that a large audience seeking this kind of film will find it and it will be celebrated because we don’t get films like this very often. After watching it, I compared the film to Rian Johnson’s Looper. They are not similar in story, but in respect to both directors managing to keep their own signature style intact while making a film that, to us, seems outside of their wheelhouse. Nichols really nails it and even excels past where I perceived this film could take him. As a cinema lover I think it’s a need like water or food to have a Jeff Nichols counterpart for every bad Michael Bay or Zack Snyder film I have to suffer through. Is that too much to ask, Hollywood? I give Midnight Special a five out of five.