At one point Jeff Nichols was slated to direct Aquaman. Let’s let that oddity sink in for a moment, try to picture a big-budget superhero tentpole in the hands of a small-scale operator, compare it to that one time Edgar Wright was going to direct Ant-Man. Oof — too soon. If you don’t know Jeff Nichols (or just confuse him with Mike Nichols) then there are two movies you have to see. The first is Take Shelter, about a family man plagued by apocalyptic visions. The second is Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey in one of his McConaissance roles, about a backwoods constellation of intersecting characters. If you’re sensing that neither of those exactly scream underwater trident-wielding badass, don’t panic! This indicates only that you are still sane.
One commonality between the films is Michael Shannon, a forceful actor who’s risen to prominence with the likes of Boardwalk Empire and Man of Steel, and yet still the kind of guy who seems underrated. Nichols certainly doesn’t make that mistake, recognizing his talent to such a degree that he can’t seem to make a movie without him. He’s something of a bit player in Mud, but Shannon leads Take Shelter and returns to the fore in Midnight Special, Nichols’ latest film.
More on Shannon and how generally awesome he is in a moment. The second commonality running through the small-but-recent body of work from Nichols is the pairing of what we refer to in anything remotely Orwellian as “the familiar and the strange”, a marriage of something mundane to something otherworldly. Nichols excels at this. In Take Shelter it was fairly apparent, Shannon’s Curtis haunted by biblical visions that come from the clear blue sky. In Mud this thematic meeting was a lot more subtle, McConaughey’s titular character noting that the tattered yellow button-up is his “lucky shirt”. Later in the film, when Mud needs to save the life of a young boy, Nichols makes a point of showing the otherwise luckless vagabond snag his shirt off a tree branch before he goes into action.
Midnight Special lets Nichols take the lid off this trope. 8-year-old Alton Meyer is endowed with abilities both incredible and terrifying, speaking in tongues, sensing radiation, and communing with the living by “showing them” things that are apparently beyond description. Beams of blue light pour from his eye sockets on a regular basis. He’s a savior of the human race, a beacon of Übermenschesque evolution. Or, no: he’s an alien from outer space. Wait, nope: he’s a higher-level being from right here on Earth, member of a class of light-based entities that apparently spend their time watching humans…be humans.
Midnight Special is at its best when it remembers not to forget that Alton — whatever you believe from the list above — is also just an 8-year-old kid. This is the familiar in the familiar + strange equation, and it’s ostensibly the thing that makes Midnight Special something more than your annual Something’s Up With The Kid Next Door-type movie. A movie that leaps inexorably to mind at the end of Midnight is Tomorrowland, largely because the special effects are unfortunately very similar; but Casey from that movie is a good example of what Alton from Midnight could have been, namely another inexplicably parentless kid who comes of age and learns the truth about his powers.
Alton does learn the truth about his powers, but his father is kneeling on the ground behind him while he does. Nichols attempts to shift the focus in that familiar narrative from Alton to his parents, leaving a story about family and holding on to someone you love, about doing right by them regardless of the unfamiliar paths they lead you down. It mostly works, but there is a certain threshold the film crosses that brings the narrative from the realm of mystery fully into the realm of sci-fi. In that moment Midnight begins to suffer. The move to cast the main character of the film — if Midnight can be said to have a single main character — not as Gifted Boy but Father of Gifted Boy is a bold one, and one that probably seemed boring on paper.
To say that Midnight Special is boring is inaccurate. It moves along and is full of interesting characters, anchored by Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver and others in strong performances (and it’s good to see Scott Haze from Child of God, too). But for all of the bold choices and solid performances at hand, the film isn’t ultimately as fresh or original as it should be. Toss E.T., Close Encounters, Super 8 and the aforementioned Tomorrowland into a bowl and mix it up; the result won’t exactly be Midnight Special, but it’ll be damn close. The difference, again, is the perspective of the adults, and yet the ending of the film seems to want us to understand something about where Alton has left his father and mother. Unfortunately, that message is either lost in the swirl or — and here’s a thought — it isn’t there at all.
Nichols’ follow-up to Midnight will be Loving, a true-life story about interracial marriage that one imagines will bring Nichols back to Earth a little bit. Midnight Special is an admirable effort on a great many fronts, and it’s even a good movie in some respects. Most will be unsatisfied, though, due to the frustrating feeling that the film should have amounted to much more. Nichols remains a director to watch, and for now it’s probably Take Shelter that remains his finest effort. The overarching themes of his filmography are mature, original, and thoughtful on a level that few Hollywood flicks can manage, so perhaps it’s just a matter of finding the stories that really bring those themes to the fore. There’s a marriage of the familiar and the strange, sure, but in Midnight Special there’s just a little too much of the former.