Directed by: Jeff Nichols.
Written by: Jeff Nichols.
Starring: Michael Shannon (Roy), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton Meyer), Adam Driver (Sevier), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Sam Shepard (Calvin Meyer), Paul Sparks (Agent Miller), David Jensen (Elden).
In just four films, Jeff Nichols has become one of the most interesting filmmakers working in America today. Each of his films has had a bigger budget than the film before – each are reaching for bigger audiences, and yet unlike many indie filmmakers gone Hollywood, Nichols has remained steadfastly himself. There are more special effects in his fourth film, Midnight Special, than his previous three films combined – and there are deliberate echoes of Nichols’ influences – Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Stephen King, etc. – throughout the film. And yet, the film is still completely Nichols own. Like Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, Midnight Special is very much a family drama, wrapped up in genre film trappings. His films are increasingly combined the real and the fantastic, culminating with Midnight Special. I’m not sure if it’s Nichols’ best film to date – but it’s certainly his most ambitious.
The film thrusts the audience right into the story, and trusts them enough to let them catch up to what is happening. Essentially, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) have kidnapped Roy’s 8-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), and are taking him across the American South in an old muscle car bound for places unknown. Alton had been “adopted” by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who is running some sort of cult in Texas, with Alton – and his strange gifts – at the center of it. The cult worship Alton – and are determined to get him back. But then, so is the government – who realize the boy has access to information there is no way he should possibly have – and want to figure out why. Right from the start then, Alton is at the center of a three way tug of war – between the religion of the cult, the science of the government (represented by Adam Driver’s Sevier, a scientist who marvels at what Alton can do), and his own parents – as eventually, they will meet up with Sarah (Kristen Dunst), Alton’s mother as well.
To say more would be to give too much away, so I won’t go that far. What the film does do, brilliantly, is too slowly and surely setup each of its characters, and their motivations. It is a slight disappointment that some characters are jettisoned along the way – Sam Shepard is so good in the early scenes as the cult leader, it’s a shame we don’t see more of him – and the same could be said for his followers, including Doak (Bill Camp), the man dispatched to fetch Alton back – who isn’t sure he’s doing the right thing, but is going to do so anyway. Adam Driver is, once again, excellent – and has some great scenes, and is pivotal to the plot at several moments – but he too is jettisoned. This is something that often happens in Coen Brother Movies – the supporting cast is so well sketched, even if characters only get a scene or two, that you often want more of them. But Nichols stays disciplined – and sticks with the main story, which is ultimately one of the movie’s strengths.
The film features one of Michael Shannon’s best performances to date as Roy. Shannon has been in each of Nichols’ four film (he was the star of three, and had a small supporting role in Mud – which was the right choice, as the title character in that film fit star Matthew McConaughey like a glove). Shannon, of course, is gifted at playing creeps and psychos – but he often doesn’t get credit for just how subtle he can be. Here, he’s playing a father who is willing to do anything for his son. Most movies would give Shannon a big, soppy, sentimental speech at some point – but Midnight Special never does – right up until his final moments in the film, he is more defined by his actions than his words. Yet, Shannon makes Roy into a tremendously complex and sympathetic character – even when we disagree with his actions, and at times it’s hard not to, we understand them. Dunst is almost as great as Sarah – and again, the film doesn’t rely on speeches to convey the love she has for her child – even in her emotionally gut-wrenching final moments with Alton.
The primary achievement of the film though is Nichols – who does a wonderful job here as a visual storyteller. You can certainly see aspects of Spielberg 1970s-80s Spielberg (Close Encounters, ET) or John Carpenter (Starman) – but Nichols makes the visuals his own. He’s one of the few filmmakers who genuinely seems to be able to portray those in “flyover” country in complex, thought provoking ways – and also able to touch of spiritual themes without preaching. The film goes big at the end – but not in terms of action, but in terms of ideas, and yes, visual effects. Like Take Shelter, the ending raises as many questions as it answers – and I genuinely like that approach – and certainly did here.
Midnight Special is one of those films that I really liked as I was watching it – but that has grown in my mind since it ended. It is a brilliantly structured, acted and directed film – and it touches of themes that as a parent, I found profoundly moving. It confirms Nichols’ standing as one of the best filmmakers working in America today.