Posted on Saturday, February 13th, 2016 by Jack Giroux
Midnight Special and Loving topped my most anticipated of 2016 list. Two movies in one year from writer-director Jeff Nichols is one sweet deal. Nichols’ last film, Mud, struck a chord with audiences, earning over $20M at the box-office, but it’s the director’s next picture, Midnight Special, that might be his big hit.
After premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, the Midnight Special early buzz is mostly positive for this old school sci-fi road movie. Find out what some of the reviews have to say below.
Most of the critics say it’s best to go into Midnight Special blind, but it still feels like a few of them reveal too much about the plot. The trailer had an air of mystery about it, and it might be best to preserve it. I recommend mostly sticking with these blurbs, if you want to see Nichols’ film knowing as little as possible going in.
Serving up hefty human insight in place of third-act gimmickry, and reuniting him with “Take Shelter” star Michael Shannon, Nichols’ impressively restrained yet limitlessly imaginative fourth feature takes its energy from an ensemble of characters who hold fast to their convictions, even though their beliefs remain shrouded in mystery for much of the journey.
The less audiences know going in, the better, though that could backfire on a movie without a big enough star to attract the crowds it would need to inspire a word-of-mouth following. With only a TV orange alert by way of exposition, “Midnight Special” relies on the ability of an intelligent audience to make sense of what is happening, understanding that even writer-director Nichols probably doesn’t have an explanation for everything.
Perhaps there was a great film in there. On a relatively low budget, Nichols — along with his longtime cinematographer Adam Stone — have managed to emulate the texture of the films that Midnight Special so clearly is paying homage to, even if the full-blown quotes sometimes prove clunky. The finely selected ensemble cast is reliably tough as well, particularly Shannon in his go-to “gentle tough guy” role. Nichols’ 2011 film Take Shelter used a similarly minimalist sci-fi setup to focus on a family in crisis, and Special also plants a father-child relationship at its core, and — in credit to Shannon’s dedication — it plays very well.
The problems that weigh down Midnight Special seem rooted almost solely in Nichols’ editing. The director stated that this approach was the “culmination of an experiment of removing as much information as possible, almost to the point of damaging the story.” The evidence suggests he may have passed that line.
Aside from the odd bit of casting news, Midnight Special has been shrouded in secrecy since filming commenced in early 2014, and indeed it is best to go into the film with as little prior knowledge of the plot and characters as possible. If this review is light on spoilers, however, it’s only because attempting to distil the key scenes into a few words would be an utterly futile exercise (a series of exclamatory reaction gifs would be far more illuminating). Nichols is the kind of director who favours the slow burn over the instant payoff, meaning that the high-tension, low-drama manner in which his modern-day parable unfolds makes the third-act fireworks even more dazzling.
With his initial output, from moody drama Shotgun Stories to coming-of-age tale Mud, director Jeff Nichols didn’t initially appear like he belonged in this category. Even in Take Shelter, his more fantastically themed thriller about a man with apocalyptic visions, his style was closer to Terrence Malick than anyone else. His patient direction didn’t mark him out as a future franchise-starter.
But with his new film, he’s making a concerted effort to stake his claim as a hit-maker, a director who can appeal to a wide audience with a timeless adventure. He’s even talked about how it’s essentially a homage to both E.T. and Close Encounters.
Sadly, the Spielbergian magic that Nichols so desperately wants to recreate is almost entirely absent from the end product and without it, there’s something disappointingly lifeless instead.
It’s typical of this director’s withholding style that at one stage we’re fully expecting to hear a gunshot ring out against a nocturnal panorama of city lights, but do not. Without a telltale mobile phone in sight, Midnight Special also conceals for a long time that it’s even set in the present day, restoring the textures of 1970s and 1980s Spielbergiana with beautifully simple images, such as Alton reading comic-books by torchlight on the car’s back seat, or a classroom turned into a makeshift interrogation HQ.
In his fourth feature, Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols pays transporting homage to the rich tradition, spanning the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, of intelligent sci-fi emotionally grounded in relatable human dynamics. There’s an explicit nod, in particular, to John Carpenter’s Starman, echoed even in the enveloping mood of David Wingo’s driving electronic score. But this suspenseful, beautifully acted supernatural thriller is also very much of a piece with Nichols’ overarching thematic concerns and stylistic approach, with notably strong links to another riveting study in fatherhood, family and home, Take Shelter. And like that film, it’s built around a performance of formidable gravitas from Michael Shannon.
But for the vast majority of the runtime, the film we get is masterful in its control. Aided by a thrillingly immersive score from David Wingo, and wonderful twilight/dawn, low-contrast photography from DP Adam Stone, it unfolds with a kind of relentless linearity (once you accept the basic premise, it is remarkably un-twisty in its revelations and reveals). And once again, in constant collaborator Michael Shannon, Nichols finds the perfect engine to power this slender story forward — was ever any actor so able to project an aura of utter conviction, even when faced with the impossibly wrenching eventuality that the only way to save his child might be to let him go?
There are lots and lots of comparisons to Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter in these reviews. That’s not much of a surprise, though, considering Nichols has compared his film to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman. Those are high bars to reach, but the director is capable of delivering a film that lives up to that standard.
Will Midnight Special be Jeff Nichols’ big break? Let’s hope so. Warner Bros. was reportedly interested in him directing Aquaman, but by “big break,” I mean hopefully Nichols keeps making the movies he wants to make, and perhaps some of them on a scale larger than Shotgun Stories or Take Shelter.
Midnight Special opens in theaters March 18th.Cool Posts From Around the Web: