Jeff Nichols has been steadily becoming the prominent American writer/director voice for the rural American male after the masterful psychological nightmare of Take Shelter and the open-hearted fable of Mud. His latest, Midnight Special is a bit wider in scope and ambition while keeping one foot in the pool of his previous efforts Americana environment. Nichols is playing with genre this time, a soft sci-fi effort that shows his ability to captivate an engaged audience with his confident control of craft. However unlike those previous efforts (along with the underseen Shotgun Stories), the screenplay rarely cracks the surface of the world he provides for us. The film’s eyes are bigger than its stomach.
Nichols staple Michael Shannon plays Roy, who is on the run with his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) with Roy’s mysteriously gifted son Alton (St. Vincent‘s Jaden Lieberher). Alton’s powers remain vague for much of the film, but he is wanted by the government for perceived threat to national security. Those powers had led Alton to be praised as some kind of deity by the cult he was raised within, an organization reminiscent of recent polygamist raids whose leader had taken claim over the raising of Alton. After kidnapping Alton and meeting up with his birth mother (Kirsten Dunst), Roy must deliver his son to the fateful coordinates that Alton had prophesied.
This is a lot of juggling to be done narratively, with themes of religious fanaticism, familial brokenness, and parental sacrifice coming into play before even diving into the genre elements. The result isn’t so much an overstuffed, cumbersome film like recent emotional sci-fi like Interstellar, but one that drops plot strands like hot potatoes. Nichols knows how to make every one of these elements intrigue, but never lets them take root over the film’s perhaps too short run time. The cult is appropriately chilling, lived in if without detail, but amounts to just an early side step from the ultimate path of the movie. Things get more vague when explanations for Alton’s gifts come to light and passed over, perhaps one of the more unsatisfying elements of the film.
It’s frustrating to have the writer/director expand his ambition only to somewhat lose sight of his own gifts of building detailed and fully realized character insights. Here, the minutiae is a blink and you miss it experience, with some bits worthy of more exploration than Nichols grants. It’s odd that a filmmaker so previously interested in fatherhood and maleness (and unburdened by the traps of bro-ness that trip up his contemporaries) doesn’t specifically explore the ripe opportunities for such examination in his own screenplay.
The craft here isn’t to be denied, with layered cinematography by Adam Stone and a foreboding score by David Wingo both doing much of the heavy lifting to establish the film’s frightening and optimistic tone. An uncompromising editing job by Julie Monroe delivers the films jolts and builds tension while informing on character. The film’s clear Amblin-inspired pastiche still flares of originality of design when dealing with familiar genre elements.
Some of the more satisfying elements come from the ensemble, for Nichols is an underrated actor’s director. Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver are frill free, but give the film it’s small blips of humor. More importantly, Special is the rare showcase for the sensitive side of Michael Shannon, an actor who can do so much within the space of a silence. No director understands Shannon and his abilities better than Jeff Nichols, and this film is a nice companion to Take Shelter as a showcase for the actor’s unique brand of emotionality. He’s an actor of so much more than the villains and mentally disturbed that he’s typically cast.
But the film’s unexpected emotional core is Kirsten Dunst. Rarely does the actress speak in the film without you being surprised and wanting more of what’s in her head. Whether she’s alluding to her previous life in the commune or accepting her son’s nature, the actress fills in the gaps of the screenplay with the sadness in her eyes. The actress has been growing in esteem in the past decade or so, and her work here will hopefully reignite interest in her understated talent. Her final beats in the films finale provide the film with the kind of complex emotion that it had been needing all along.
A bit too elusive narratively, but solidly crafted otherwise, Midnight Special isn’t likely to be the standout in Jeff Nichols’s filmography. The film makes for an agreeable spring diversion against such film horrors as Hardcore Henry and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, even if it is far from complete or as satisfying as it could be. Later this year, Nichols has the civil rights era marital story Loving, hoping to make further good on his directing and screenwriting promise and expand on his growing ambition.