Jeff Nichols is not a name your average filmgoer will recognize. His three films made less money at the box office than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice made in a half hour last weekend. But those in the know have been keeping tabs on Nichols since his breakout sophomore effort, the provocative apocalypse tale Take Shelter, and over these three films (also including his debut, Shotgun Stories, and the moderately successful and excellent Mud), he has established himself as a strong Southern voice on the independent scene, the sort of director who makes you sit up and take notice whenever he announces a new project. His newest film, Midnight Special, is also his first to receive major studio consideration, having been backed and distributed by Warner Bros. Will this be the chance for Nichols to widen his audience?
A road movie with a science fiction twist, Midnight Special follows Roy (Nicholas stalwart Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), estranged childhood friends reunited over the protection of Roy’s son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy who appears to have supernatural powers that manifest as a spectral white light that emanates from his eyes. He sleeps with noise-cancelling headphones, wears blue goggles and isn’t allowed to be exposed to daylight, making their cross country trip a difficult one, made more complicated by an Amber Alert registered by The Ranch, a religious cult-like organization who believes Alton is their messiah. The Amber Alert brings the FBI into the fray, and with it an NSA operative (Adam Driver) who seems to have taken a particular interest in The Ranch’s sermons, most of which originated from Alton supposedly speaking in tongues. Despite an almost insurmountable series of hardships, Roy, Lucas and Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) will stop at nothing to get him to Florida before Friday, for reasons they cannot entirely comprehend.
Midnight Special is a film that shows little and tells less, existing entirely in media res and relying on context clues and assumptions to tell a story that otherwise leans heavily on emotion to convey its plot and themes. This is a swing for the fences sort of approach that can easily result in a grand slam or an embarrassing strikeout, yet despite the risk, Nichols manages end up with something more akin to a solid single. The danger in Nichols’ approach is the possibility that the mystery can collapse under the weight of itself, offering more questions than answers and obfuscating its story to the point that wonder morphs into skepticism and the warmth of the story turns cold. There are characters and storylines set up in the film’s first act that seem to abruptly disappear without satisfactory resolution when their direct importance to the story is done, and others must grapple with motivation that is murky at best. The script feels a tad undercooked, perhaps tweak here or there, a revision or two away from being something truly special. The emotional core that you need from a film like this is present, but also tantalizingly out of reach. For whatever reason, Midnight Special is a film that never manages to fully capture you in its mystery, despite the fact that it has clearly been put together by a director and crew of obvious talent.
Certainly not in doubt is the quality of the ensemble; Michael Shannon has been with Nichols since the beginning (his only non-starring role was Mud, and we can thank Zack Snyder’s turgid Man of Steel for that), and his weathered, craggy face is perhaps not classically that of a warm father figure (he didn’t exactly convey much warmth in Take Shelter), but Shannon is a consummate professional and one of the better actors of the current era, settling into this role of a caring father with a capable-of-anything survivalist streak with aplomb. Joel Edgerton continues to perfect his lot in life as the sort of actor who rarely stands out as a master of his craft, but is extremely reliable in just about every role. He’s probably second in screen time to Shannon in the grand scheme of things, whereas the likes of Kirsten Dunst isn’t given quite enough to form a basis for a character. She’s fine here, as is much of the rest of the supporting cast (Bill Camp is always reliable when you need an intimidating presence, and Adam Driver continues to hone his droll, understated brand of comedy when the film needs a little levity), but it truly does feel like a three role sort of film. Youngster Jaeden Lieberher completes the trifecta, giving a reserved and decidedly otherworldly performance, forced to dance between the fear and confusion of a child with this sort of preternatural, almost superheroic side that manifests through his powers. He is hamstrung a tad by the vagueness of the script, but the emotional content is fulfilled, which is key for a film like this, with its allusions to Spielberg and other sorts of Amblin-esque road adventure films. Cinematographer Adam Stone plays well with the light and dark that forms a foundational aspect of the story, and even though not every aspect of it is fully realized, the tension rises admirably and successfully keeps you engaged even if looking back it’s a somewhat hollow experience.
Midnight Special may be the weakest of Nichols’ films to date, but with the track record that includes Mud, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, there is still quite a bit of room for quality even if it does flirt with disappointment. It is a challenging film, one that relies on its audience’s good will to bridge the gaps it refuses to fill in. Too often, those gaps are too wide to be satisfactorily traversed on our own, which is problematic, and as the film races toward its climax, some of those little storytelling niggles threaten to overwhelm the narrative Nichols is trying to convey, but his ensemble is so strong, his filmmaking assured, and enough of his ideas are alluring that the ship manages to keep itself afloat. It’s tough not to think of Midnight Special as a bit of a missed opportunity, the sort of film that finds itself just a little left of center, not a failure by any means but not entirely a success either. These things can happen to a young talent like Jeff Nichols, and there is more than enough to remain excited for what he’ll be making next.