Jeff Nichols’ MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a Propulsive, Emotional, Sci-Fi Adventure [SXSW 2016]

American filmmaker Jeff Nichols hasn’t misfired yet. And after Midnight Special, I’ll continue to stand by that statement, though not everyone will. More aspirational than any of his previous work, there’s a grand scale to the picture that goes beyond the magical realism of Mud or even the potentially supernatural storms of Take Shelter. It is such a complete plunge into mystery and science fiction that it just may lose some folks. But fear not, Nichols’ penchant for remarkable character work and drawing fantastic performances out of his cast (which always includes Michael Shannon) is firmly intact. In fact, Midnight Special, for all its sci-fi tropes, is ultimately an opportunity to explore the bonds of parenthood and the unique fears and complexities of the parent/child relationship.

I can’t help but experience films as a parent now, a sensation which still feels quite new despite my firstborn being over a year old now. There’s simply a new filter through which to experience and process cinema. Needless to say, when one of my favorite working directors tackles an emotional parent-child drama (which has its origins in Nichols’ own experience as a parent), I’m going to respond to it.

Beyond the sci-fi, and undergirding the family dynamics, is also a propulsive mystery which may ultimately be the lynch pin for the success of Midnight Special. A bit of a road adventure, we’re introduced to Shannon’s Roy (Dad), Joel Edgerton’s Lucas (Loyal Friend), and Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton (Mysterious Boy) as they high tail it down the road in the middle of the night. We’ll learn on the go who these people are, where they are headed, why they’re in a rush, and who they’re rushing away from. And I do mean on the go. Midnight Special offers virtually no extraneous exposition. And what little there is feels perfectly integrated into the dialog and plot revelations, such that the screenplay slides into the background and you find yourself simply along for the ride, trying to assemble the breadcrumbs for yourself as to what the ultimate mystery surrounding Alton is. It spoils nothing to say that Alton is gifted with unique, otherworldly, or spiritual powers. That’s more or less the starting off point. What are these powers? Which among the various factions chasing after Alton are attempting to harness his powers for ill? Who can be trusted to care for Alton amidst all the chasing and running?

As is often the case, the reveal, or the answers to the questions which are provided, are somewhat less compelling than the asking of the questions. I admit to being mildly underwhelmed by the ultimate climax of the story, when the build up and anticipation had been so strong. I’ll also note that I very distinctly long to see the film again, and would do so immediately if given the chance. Midnight Special is the kind of film that will be a wholly different experience upon a second viewing. Knowing where everything is headed would certainly allow an opportunity to soak in more of the surrounding details, and I legitimately believe the climax will be a more rewarding experience a second time through.

With Midnight Special, Nichols is explicitly paying homage to Steven Spielberg, but unlike films like Super 8 (which I actually quite enjoyed), there remains a distinctly Jeff Nichols flavor to the whole project. He’s aiming at a wider audience and Midnight Special could largely play as a family film. But the propulsive mystery, and the beating hearts of parents ushering their child toward a destiny unknown, consequences be damned, lays a mature and heartfelt foundation upon which to build a sci-fi chase movie that could have bordered on silly without it.

It should also be noted that the score from David Wingo is fantastic, offering hummable melody mixed with melancholy and wonder. The visual effects are striking, often providing the only elements of terror into the equation. Since Alton’s abilities are largely unknown to the audience and the characters around him, when instances of “things he does” arise, they can be quite frightening and visually stunning, while simultaneously sparing and effective. Set in the south, as all of Nichols’ films are, Midnight Special also looks quite beautiful and offers that Americana imagery which Nichols is a true master of.

While my initial reaction to Midnight Special isn’t as emotionally charged as my experience of Mud or Take Shelter were, I definitively consider Special to be a victory for Nichols. It’s a film I want to see many times, whose characters will become more rich upon repeat viewings and whose themes of the tragic and beautiful elements of parenthood wrestling back and forth create an emotional experience that would likely also grow with repeat viewings.

Midnight Special will get a large, national release, and I can’t encourage you enough to seek this film out for yourself. It’s an auteur blockbuster the likes of which America is rarely treated to any longer. Parents and children alike will have an opportunity to experience a powerful awe and wonder that the latest Marvel movie is unlikely to provide.

And I’m Out.

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis