Midnight Special ** out of ****
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, and Sam Shepherd
Release Date- March 18, 2016
Midway through Midnight Special there’s a line that’s uttered from a father to his son that sticks with us, despite how generic it initially seems, and encapsulates its director’s entire film oeuvre. “I like worrying about you,” Roy (Michael Shannon) says to his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), after a near death experience. Such a simple line depicts the compulsion men invariably encounter in each of the four films made by Arkansas director Jeff Nichols. His men are troubled, burdened, and eventually consumed by an unhealthy urge to either protect their family, friends, or legacy.
Unlike the best films of Nichols (this ranks last on his list), Midnight Special does not fully go with the reverberations that such a faithful adherence to a compulsion would lead to. Rather, we are dragged along an erratic journey that fuses a variety of genres (inevitable comparisons to E.T. Will ensue), eventually losing sight of Mr. Nichols’ sweet spot: examining man’s unerring religious devotion to protection and human emotion.
Of course it is encouraged for directors to traverse the roads beyond their complacency. An attempt at such a task is an exercise in precision and even risk-taking. Knowing when and where to direct one’s attention is a hallmark of a superb director. Nichols, a homegrown talent, portrays the Deep South unlike anyone today, but this feature has him distancing himself from that, slowly resembling a director who wants to break his mold but unclear what to pursue next.
Nichols’ foray into science-fiction never reaches its full potential and, more depressingly, never attains its denouement. We saw glimmers of sci-fi genius in his 2011 film, Take Shelter. In that film Michael Shannon plays a man plagued by visions of an impending apocalypse and the measures he goes to in order to protect his family. That’s a better science-fiction film mainly because the film strictly observes a man and his family, and not finding attraction with anything else. The same can be said regarding his last feature, Mud, and his first and best feature, Shotgun Stories.
When Midnight Special begins we are immediately thrust into a situation that resembles a kidnapping. In a darkened motel room (made possible by taping cardboard to the windows to prevent sunlight), Roy and his old best friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are staring intently at a television reporting the kidnapping of an 8-year-old boy. Alton is the boy and Roy, the father, is the kidnapper. Alton is present in the hotel room with the two men, hiding beneath a white sheet and blue swimming goggles while devouring pages from a comic book. It looks like a friendly situation rather than a kidnapping. It is revealed that Roy and Lucas are attempting to save Alton from everyone, and even provide him with something that has been eluding him.
Then the next scene contains what resembles a religious cult, headed by Calvin (Sam Shepherd). Turns out Alton was their godhead (who possesses special powers that allow him to project blinding beams of light from his eyes, hence the goggles) and Roy had previous history with this group until he cut ties. Looking out at his congregation Calvin preaches made-up doctrines containing numbers of particular significance, until the FBI interrupts, bursting through the doors, and takes all present into questioning.
Within the first 15 minutes Nichols’ direction exemplifies a creator with an over abundance of ambition, setting up multiple ways his film can go but quickly going nowhere at all. Our initial attraction is to the boy, and then to the congregation, and then back to the boy. It is all over the place and with key performances to keep us engaged. Also captivating us is an NSA agent played by Adam Driver. With the scenes he is provided he makes the most out of his awkward yet impressive talents, providing a slight sense of comic relief when the film begins to take itself too seriously.
Aside from the stellar acting and the potent father/son relationship, Midnight Special amounts to very little. The film says more concise things about its director rather than its own narrative, and that should not be the case with so much that is going on here. Watching the progression that Nichols has been undergoing, though, one can sense a slight disenchantment with the south, corralling anything he can to spice it up, and a digression from the genius that he was once considered imminently attaining. Granted, this is only a minute digression, but it is a glaring one at that.