Jeff Nichols | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Greece / English | 12 / PG-13
I’m not sure I’d even heard the name Jeff Nichols before Midnight Special came along, at which point most of the gushing reviews that followed seemed to mention him with cult-like reverence. He’s the writer and director, by the way, for anyone still in the dark, and unbeknownst to me (and, I rather suspect, most people outside certain cinephile circles) he’d amassed something of a following over his first three movies (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, two of which I’d at least heard of). It’s kind of odd to feel like everyone else loves this guy and has been eagerly anticipating his next work and is now discussing how it chimes with his existing canon, when you’ve not even heard of him.
Anyway, his latest film* has a plot that makes me want to dub it Starman: A World Beyond… though that might indicate something about the ending, so, uh, shh! Anyway, the story concerns a dad (Michael Shannon) who’s kidnapped his son (Jaeden Lieberher) from some kind of cult, and is now on the run from both the authorities and the cultists who want the kid back. All the furore stems from the fact that the kid has some kind of special abilities, one of which has given them a destination to head for and time to be there…
The story’s style has made a comparison to Spielberg the go-to, not only for reviewers but for the writer-director himself, who’s labelled the film an homage to E.T. and Close Encounters. You can see that influence, certainly, but it lacks the effortless charm that Spielberg brings to his movies. If this is Spielberg, it’s by way of more indie arthouse fare. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. You could argue that it’s more refreshing than any of the straight-up Spielberg rehashes we’ve seen over the past four decades; conversely, a strand of wilful obscurity means it may be ultimately less satisfying. Again, some people derive satisfaction explicitly from that lack of resolution or explanation, while others will find it damagingly frustrating. Even more than Spielberg, I felt the thing most evoked by this structure was The X Files: intriguing sci-fi mysteries that eventually lead to semi-reveals which don’t quite satisfy in themselves in part because they’re trying very hard to remain open-ended.
In that regard, it’s arguably a little too woolly on its sci-fi elements, and executes the chase-thriller aspect of its plot too slowly, to be fully considered a genre movie; but it’s also too indistinct on its cast to fully convince as a character-driven drama. You can certainly begin to infer some things about what their exact motivations are, what they’re thinking and feeling and why they’re doing what they do, but I’m not sure if it’s actually there or if I’m endeavouring to build something out of the little that we’re given. That said, if I’m prepared to do Zack Snyder the courtesy of reading something into his work that may or may not be there (cf. Sucker Punch), then Jeff Nichols deserves at least the same level of kindness. But for the kind of movie whose style makes it seem like it should be about Character or Theme over more genre- and/or narrative-focused concerns, it feels there’s an awful lot of attention paid to plot over anything else. Speaking as a fan of sci-fi and high-concepts and B-thrillers and blockbusters, I actually think I’d’ve liked it more if it toned down the sci-fi and the plot, and instead focused on the characters’ soul-searching and the unusual family dynamics.
That said, there’s some great imagery. Mainly the sci-fi stuff at the end — I don’t think it’s unfair to describe most of the movie as looking solidly unremarkable, but the climax is pretty darn good. However, I’ve read many reviews that criticise the effects. Are we not past that yet? Especially when it comes to a film of this budget and scale. I thought they perfectly conveyed what they were intending to convey — usually, just a kind of otherworldly light. It’s not like it’s even over-stretching its means, like so many network TV series or Sharknado-esque movies do when they try to emulate a $200 million blockbuster on a TV budget. If you’re expecting some grand CGI, maybe go watch one of those $200 million blockbusters instead of an $18 million drama.
Midnight Special seems to provoke a wide range of responses — I mean, you can say that about most films, ultimately; but some more so than others, and skimming across reviews and comments online, this is definitely one of them. Fans of American indie-ish drama-driven semi-genre movies, or of more thoughtful science-fiction, will surely want to give it a go, but how much you’ll connect with its characters or its ideas seems to be a roll of the dice. I liked it well enough, but I don’t remember seeing any particular indication of what’s inspired the notion that we should all be fawning over Jeff Nichols as the best auteur to happen to cinema since sliced bread. (Sliced bread’s early movies were great, weren’t they?)
Midnight Special is on Sky Cinema from today.
* In a coincidental similarity to when I started viewing the work of another much-hailed star-to-be indie director (Ben Wheatley), I’m beginning with his fourth film. ^