Jeff Nichols Makes a Steven Spielberg Movie as Tribute to John Carpenter in 'Midnight Special'
Jeff Nichols is a director who makes the kind of movies I really dig, even though I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Generally, the director takes a loose approach to narrative, instead focusing on character and atmosphere. In a recent interview, Nichols bucked the old adage “story above all else” by claiming “plot is very overrated.” Indeed, his three most recent films are less concerned with an air-tight story than they are with exploring their characters’ emotions and motivations. This gives his work a highly ambiguous nature – Nichols isn’t worried about spelling anything out for his viewers; he trusts them to find their own answers within the film. With Midnight Special, Nichols’ fourth feature film, the director utilizes that approach to create a mysterious, touching and imaginative movie.
Nichols has described Midnight Special as a tribute to one of John Carpenter’s early films, Starman. I can see the similarities, especially in the plot. Both films are essentially sci-fi chase stories – a “special” character on the run from some shadowy government organization that wants to capture and study what makes this individual so special. Beyond that, though, Midnight Special feels much more like a Steven Spielberg picture. It will undoubtedly draw comparison to Close Encounters and E.T., because like those films, Midnight is really a family drama set inside of a sci-fi premise. Similar to what Spielberg achieved with those films, Nichols is interested in transcending the genre’s usual trappings, looking to create something more than just a good piece of science-fiction.
In Nichols’ film, the central chase focuses on a father and son, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), along with accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton), on the run from two groups: the aforementioned government agency, as well as a cultic religion. Both are interested in capturing Alton, who is clearly special in some way.
This piece of the plot plays into Nichols’ penchant for ambiguity. The child has some kind of power – his eyes glow blue, forcing him to wear goggles at all times, giving the ability a sort of Cyclops from the X-Men level of danger; and we learn that he can hear radio waves and satellite frequencies directly through his brain – but beyond that, the extent of Alton’s powers is a part of the mystery. More than the mystery of those powers, it’s what they represent to those chasing him that propel the plot.
On one side, the government fears Alton. He represents a threat to national security because no one knows what he is. The NSA, leading the government’s investigation here, wants to uncover Alton’s secrets so they can harness his power, if there’s any to be harnessed at all. On the other side, Alton is pursued by a religious cult that sees the boy as their salvation. They look at the mystery of his power and see promise, whereas the government looks at it and sees danger. The two entities represent two basic human reactions to the unknown: hope and fear.
Overall, the way Nichols’ script gradually doles out pertinent plot detail is masterful. The director takes a drip-by-drip approach to revealing critical plot points which keeps the viewer engaged in the way a page-turning novel does – we’re constantly in eager anticipation of what happens next. However, if Jeff Nichols truly believes that plot is overrated, this is the point that approach turns against him. Nichols’ script – despite its thrilling structure – is light on background detail. This doesn’t cripple the film, but it will certainly lead to a frustrating experience for those seeking a more fleshed out take on the motivations of the NSA and the cult. Those two forces, and the characters that represent them, are left mostly unexplained – plot devices instead of real characters.
However, Nichols’ past work has largely been about the performances, and Midnight Special is no exception. In 2012, the director helped usher Matthew McConaughey out of the pits of generic romantic-comedy hell and on the path to Oscar glory with his extraordinary film, Mud. Before that, Nichols worked with Michael Shannon on the director’s second feature, Take Shelter. That film, too, features a powerhouse lead performance from Shannon. I expect these two to collaborate many times in the future – the actor so clearly gets the filmmaker’s vision by bringing his own level of ambiguity to the performance. In both films, we’re unsure if Shannon’s lead character is doing the right thing for his family, or just what he thinks is the right thing.
The winning performances don’t end with Michael Shannon, either. Joel Edgerton turns in an understated, essential performance as Lucas, acting as enforcer on Roy’s mission. Kirsten Dunst plays Roy’s wife and Alton’s mother, Sarah, and she gives her own quietly moving performance, even if Nichols’ script doesn’t give her much to do in the film. Finally, Jaeden Lieberher helps bring the mystery of Alton to life with a performance that portrays the child in one scene as all-knowing and wise, against others that convey an innocence in his spirit. Even the supporting actors like Adam Driver and Sam Shephard, whose characters are important to the story even if the script doesn’t do much to flesh them out, give strong performances.
Midnight Special will not work equally for everyone. Nichols’ direction imbues the film with an undefined, cryptic quality. He doesn’t hold the audience’s hand through the story’s ambiguous conclusion. He takes the viewer there and asks that the viewer formulate their own answers. Like I said, my kind of movie. However, even if that kind of open-endedness frustrates you as a moviegoer, there’s still plenty to enjoy in Midnight Special.
There’s a reason Spielberg’s pictures land with such wide audiences. He’s a director who understands that a picture with a strong emotional core, populated with characters worth caring for, will make any film work, regardless of the genre or premise. After writing and directing four films, it looks like Jeff Nichols is a director who understands that as well.