Jeff Nichols is one of those directors, like the Coen Brothers, where I don’t really care what their next movie is, just that they continue to make movies. It does help though that Nichols’ new one is about a kid with special abilities getting kidnapped.
It is a long proven point that the very best science fiction, or genre film in general, uses the trappings of aliens and spaceships and laser guns to tell a very human story. Genre allows a writer the ability to take the smallest kernel of an idea or theme and expand it to its most exaggerated, unbelievable place, all the while threading a smaller, more emotional string through the whole of the film. Jeff Nichols is quite frankly, a master of doing this. His films before this have tread the line of exploitation and apocalypse and southern-fried crime, but always turning the larger concept of each genre on their heads, allowing the audience to see the soft, sensitive belly that lies beneath. Midnight Special, the title itself alluding in some way to a late night horror flick you might catch on Cinemax in the 80s, follows this trend, finding human meaning in the story of a boy with special abilities, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), and the trio of forces trying to take him as their own. The film starts in media res, two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton in all their trashy criminal glory) are packing up a hotel room in the middle of the night, while Alton sits underneath a sheet wearing goggles and construction worker ear protectors, reading a comic book by flashlight. A television screen blares with news that the boy has been kidnapped by one of the men in the room. Nichols doesn’t force feed exposition down our throat, instead he slowly unwinds the various forces at play – The Ranch (a cult), the FBI/NSA, and Alton’s family. He lets the audience genuinely connect with Alton and his father (Michael Shannon) and the strange, harried relationship they have as a pair of fugitives. Nichols pushes the slow pace almost to a breaking point where the lack of concrete information and action might distract the audience, but each time he hits the edge, he drops another bread crumb, yanking you back in. It’s essential that he does this though, as the genre trappings (though breathtaking when the film needs breathtaking) are merely his way of exploring the touching relationship between Alton and his father Ray. Because as invested as we are in the trio’s flight, and the bad guys who follow them, the true story lies in a desperate man just trying to find a few more precious moments with his very special son. Each of the other characters are just stale reflections of Ray’s love for Alton. The Ranch wants him because they falsely worship him; Adam Driver and the FBI want him because of heartfelt curiosity; but Alton’s father wants nothing more than to do what he can to protect his son, mainly because he wants to spend a few more hours in his presence. It’s beautiful work by all involved.
One Last Thought:
The pairing of Michael Shannon and Jeff Nichols is one of the great director/actor combos of all times. Their next film, Loving, looks to be just as fascinating as everything else they’ve done.