Leading up to the wide release of Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Vague Visages’ Dylan Moses Griffin has been looking back at each of the director’s previous features, and now it’s time for his Midnight Special.
Fatherhood. It’s been a constant throughout the films of Jeff Nichols, whether or not it’s in the foreground or background of the emotions and themes. With his latest film, however, it’s at its most emotionally explored and what drives the narrative. At its best, Midnight Special is the closest we’ve come to re-experiencing Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but Nichols’ latest doesn’t always come that close. As a vocal Nichols devotee, this is his first film that I believe to have some notable problems. What holds Midnight Special back from immortal greatness is the small but notable instances in which you can tell that the studio stepped in and either trimmed or elongated scenes, moments and emotional beats. There’s a bumpy feeling through much of the second act, as if you can hear the studio saying “cut here, add here.” Moments of natural human levity (that Nichols is typically so good at injecting into his scripts) feel lacking. Sam Shepard’s character, an integral one, seems to just disappear after the first act. The fact that the studio pushed the film back from Thanksgiving of last year to now is evidence of their involvement. However, these are problems that thankfully don’t overshadow what is overall a really great film.
When uninterrupted from studio interference, scenes from Midnight Special will absolutely jaw-drop you. Consider the stunning opening, with Nichols hitting the ground running and dropping us right into the action. Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are leaving a hotel room with Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). It’s a tense setting. The TV in the room informs us that an AMBER Alert has been issued for Alton, while Roy and Lucas load their guns and rush him out to their car and take off in the dead of night. Using a police scanner, they find that the cops are looking for their vehicle. Lucas cuts the lights on the car and drives using night-vision goggles. The title appears, and you immediately know you’re in talented filmmaking hands, the feeling of iconography washing over you.
Alton has special powers, the specifics of which Nichols wisely keeps close to his chest. He chooses to show rather than tell, trusting his audience to piece together Alton’s abilities. When Nichols does have characters explain things to the audience, it happens in a way that is organic to the scene. There’s a wondrous minimalism to the film that begins at script level. Alton’s powers are enough that two sets of groups are after them: one is “The Ranch”, the cult that Roy abducted him from, and the other is the government, with NSA specialist Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) serving as the resident expert on Alton.
As per usual with Nichols, he assembles a top-notch cast and gets lasting performances out of them. His muse, Michael Shannon, is as reliable as ever. As off-putting as the actor naturally looks, the one thing Nichols seems to understand about him (that other filmmakers don’t) is that there is a wealth of warmth in him. It was a special quality of Shannon’s that shone in Take Shelter, and one that Nichols continues to capture in Midnight Special. The protectiveness and love of fatherhood comes naturally to Shannon, and he projects it subtly with each interaction and emotion. Jaeden Lieberher is a great discovery of a child actor, able to convey childlike authenticity so naturally. Kirsten Dunst makes the dynamic between herself and Alton feel authentic, playing the strength of motherhood with grace and discernment. Joel Edgerton effortlessly pulls off a southern accent, never hindering his ability to sink into character. Adam Driver gets some much-needed moments of levity in the film, carrying them organically and making those moments human.
David Wingo’s score is evocative of those classic John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream scores of yesteryear but still completely original. It feels immediately classic and iconic in the same way as its inspirations, heightening the emotion and action of each scene. Nichols and his regular Director of Photography, Adam Stone, continue to deliver striking imagery together. One of their highlights is a scene at a truck stop as pieces of a falling satellite crash down. The way that they frame the satellite fragments flaming through the sky above them is truly awe-inspiring. They dolly the camera back just enough to reveal dozens of satellite fragments above them, creating such a big moment from each subtle camera movement and placement. This film is clearly on a bigger scale than either of them has worked on before, but they step up to the plate. The shots feel big and grand, without losing too much intimacy with the characters and emotion at play.
Midnight Special does pay the cost of working with a studio. Creative control isn’t fully in Nichols’ hands, and that clash can be felt in the film. But at the same time, Nichols got to make an original auteur film with Shannon as his leading man for $20 million, a minor miracle in today’s studio climate. Some bumps in the editing and tone can be viewed as a worthy cost for getting the film made, but those issues are minor in scope of what is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. Jeff Nichols remains one of the greatest working American directors, and no studio interference can ever dilute that.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.