When it comes to Jeff Nichols, the man knows how to keep you in suspense while teetering on the edge of boredom. That’s meant to be a compliment, not an insult, but the banality, or better, normalcy in his films help ground both the protagonist and the viewer in the real world. A combination of roughly 85% practicality, and a very alluring 15% sci-fi, he repeatedly succeeds in these dream-like narratives because his stories draw on viewers’ imaginations and really hit home on an emotional level.
Midnight Special, an homage as much as it is a stylized throwback, is light and fast, and gets the job done with nothing more than bare essentials. Further, it’s more like shoestring storytelling that even finds the director using his own car (in some scenes) to tell his tale. While perceived as a love letter to young Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, Nichols is doing more than thanking them in the credits – he offers up his most sincere form of cinematic cosplay while managing to make something uniquely his own.
Nichols certainly excels at drawing us in, and it’s because he puts focus on story and character. He also has a secret weapon in the form of one Michael Shannon. As such, his latest effort is like a thesis paper after doing years of exceptional undergraduate work. The no-frills narrative continually hits its mark and moves on without relishing in small victories. It advances the story on a human scale, and peppers in just enough extraordinary elements to make this on par with Jaws, in terms of the payoff being well worth the build-up.
The film is essentially a short story; they succeed because of their form, and some just don’t work in any other format. That said, even at close to 2 hours, Midnight Special retains that small-scale feel and intensity (Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling would be proud). Helping that is the very small but talented cast (Michael Shannon‘s Roy, Jaeden Lieberher‘s Alton and Joel Egerton‘s Lucas) who understands that “less is more” is Nichols’ modus operandi. That particularly suits Shannon – he’s more a Clint Eastwood type than a Tom Cruise leading man anyway – who makes us empathize with and believe the efforts he’s taking to keep his son safe.
The chemistry between Shannon and Edgerton is perhaps the most significant, and they are the type of characters that when seen on screen, there is very little pause to question their legitimacy. While playing nondescript and yet very pivotal characters, they emote effortlessly with the same matter-of-fact style that the film itself presents to the audience. A good amount of that actually comes from Lieberher who becomes such a strong character in the last third of the film.
Even Adam Driver helps ground the film with his everyman presence and the film is compelling because it is so, well, grounded. As mentioned above, there is more than a passing John Carpenter vibe to Midnight Special (composer David Wingo really drives that home with his terrifically simple atmospheric score). Yet while Nichols crafts a Starman-esqe narrative, this chase thriller remains his vision because it feels like a “Nichols film”.
Now this is a lot of stating the fact without deeply analyzing the film. But as we never want to give anything away, or spoil the fun to be had, be content knowing that Midnight Special is just as stellar as Nichols’ world-ending film from 2011. It’s amazing that in a world where CG environments, and whiz-bang special effects dominate cinemas, this gets back to good, old-fashioned storytelling. Better, one with an emotional payoff for both characters, and the audience. Take Shelter threw people for a loop with its message and performances. Midnight Special is an equally excellent film for the same and yet different reasons. It’s just damn good science fiction.