Jeff Nichols has managed to carve out a solid niche for himself in the American indie scene. Since his debut with Shotgun Stories, he has continued with the likes of Take Shelter and Mud, to tell intimate stories drenched in Americana that engage and challenge its audiences in interesting and subtle ways. With his latest, Midnight Special, Nichols makes his first turn into genre territory with a sci-fi tale about a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), who along with his friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are on a mysterious journey with Roy’s son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). During that journey, they need to protect Alton, who seems to possess some strange abilities. They are being pursued by a cult as well as the government, whose investigation is led by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).
If you’ve seen any bit of marketing material for the film, then it should be obvious how much Midnight Special wears its influences on its sleeve. What Nichols is doing with Midnight Special is creating an homage to Spielbergian science fiction and the various outings of Amblin Entertainment from the 70s and 80s. There’s also a little bit of Starman in there. There’s no doubt that Nichols has grown up with these films and has a lot of his filmmaking informed by the likes of Spielberg, as many modern directors have.
There is more to Midnight Special than empty homage, though. It is a film about parenthood. It delves into that primal feeling of what it’s like for a parent to feel when it comes to keeping their children safe from the world around them, and how hard it truly is to learn to let go. There can even be an argument made for the film acting as more of a metaphor for the experience of parenting a child with a mental illness or some terminal sickness, even. Plus, under all this is a story that deals in faith. Not just of the extremes, like the cult members, but even within the character of Roy. He’s a man who can’t understand what his son is going through, but is sure that it means something, and ultimately has to surrender to the otherworldliness that it brings, no matter the cost.
Unfortunately, even with all the neat ideas that Nichols is exploring, the film, as a whole, isn’t very satisfying.
Many directors have tried and, for the most part, failed to replicate the level of genius filmmaking that Spielberg has been able to pull off, especially in regards to how he has made his seminal science fiction works like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (as well as the criminally underappreciated A.I. Artificial Intelligence and War of the Worlds). What many directors, including Nichols himself have forgotten was creating that sense of awe and wonder that is always found in those films mentioned. Certain moments in Midnight Special seem to be attempting to create a sense of awe, but they are often over and done with before it allows you to really soak in the moment.
And another element that Spielberg always nails that Nichols fails to do is engage on an emotional level. Now, I’m not trying to re-write the film, Nichols is clearly trying to create a drama that is more understated and reserved. However, somewhere along the line, it almost feels like he instructed his actors to not emote because he wants to ensure the audience doesn’t feel anything. The film seems so afraid to let you see any of the characters show anything other than stern seriousness that it feels monotonous and eventually tiresome. Because the film doesn’t let you in on the characters’ emotions, it makes the experience more passive, thus it prevents us from relating or connecting with anyone involved. There can be a mix of sweeping emotion and restraint without the film falling into sentimentality, which is something the film is obviously trying to avoid (and it’s a shame because “sentimentality” seems to have become a dirty word, despite the fact that it’s a perfectly effective way of experiencing a story, and that it could be done in a right way and a wrong way, but whatever, I don’t want to rant here).
Despite these issues of mine, the film could easily disappoint many people simply for the way it tells its story. It’s a film that brings up two new questions for each one it answers. It’s not the kind of film for those looking to have a concrete idea of what it is that they just saw. And this is honestly not an issue for me. It was one of the things I liked about the film, with reservations that I’ll get to later, but it still was something that kept me engaged with the story even if the characters weren’t doing it for me. Oddly enough, the way the film is structured and marketed almost feels like the work of another Spielberg wannabe, J.J. Abrams. This is totally a movie in the classic Abrams “mystery box” variety, and wouldn’t ya know it, Nichols probably pulls it off the best. And while I do say he pulls it off better than Abrams has done in the films he’s directed, I don’t think Nichols hits a home run either. He makes the mistake of confusing withholding information for ambiguity. For example, there is a moment where we see Roy about to shoot a man because he knows too much, he’s also Roy’s friend, so there is a bit of hesitation. The scene cuts to another location and we do not find out whether or not Roy shot the man. At least, not until later in the film. The reason I point out this scene is because my reaction to finding out if he shot the man would very likely be the same either way. There is nothing that the film benefits from by not showing me Roy’s decision. It can’t be to show how ruthless Roy can be to protect his son because early on Roy was more than willing to shoot a police officer, an innocent guy just trying to do his job. It’s little things like this that takes away from an otherwise interesting storytelling choice.
Now it’s not to say that Midnight Special is a bad film. This is very much the work of a great filmmaker, a filmmaker that has made some misguided decisions, but a great filmmaker nonetheless. The performances, while leaving me emotionally cold, are more than serviceable, and that’s thanks to some stellar casting. The cinematography and music by Nichols regulars Adam Stone and David Wingo, respectively, is great. It’s a thoroughly well-made and watchable movie that has some interesting themes and ideas to chew on, but when a moment towards the end feels like I should be crying my eyes out, but instead feel nothing, something must have went horribly wrong. I’m sure there is an audience for this, but for me, it’s nothing more than fine, and it certainly doesn’t earn that “special” in the title. But hey, the good news is that we are getting another film from Jeff Nichols called Loving, which is currently aiming for a November release. 60/100