It really doesn’t take much for the media to announce that some American director has taken up the mantle of “the Next Spielberg.” We’ve seen the cycle go around a lot recently with the influx of “fresh” white men handed the keys to major Hollywood franchises: J.J. Abrams, Colin Trevorrow, Joss Whedon. Hell, even M. Night Shyamalan infamously held the belt for a while. And then there’s Jeff Nichols, who might be the only candidate actually following the same career path as the patron saint of Amblin: hovering on the edges of Hollywood and garnering a significant critical following through ambitious, low-budget genre work.
But whether it’s recency bias at work or I’ve just gotten bored to tears of Spielberg’s schtick, I find the comparison extremely unflattering to Nichols. In a very short amount of time (“Midnight Special,” his latest feature, is only his fourth film following “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud”), Nichols has displayed a thematic and narrative complexity far beyond much of Spielberg’s work, which tends to allow exquisite craft and rousing entertainment outpace the simplistic moralism of his ideas. There are certainly exceptions to this – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for one, from which “Midnight Special”, not coincidentally, draws more than a little inspiration. But Nichols has a confidence in the archetypical nature of his characters and stories that Spielberg has never had – and it allows the writer/director to go to places both more enigmatic and more fine-grained.
Let’s back up (and stop ragging, for no special reason other than I felt like it, on Spielberg). What is “Midnight Special?” You may very well ask, especially given that title will essentially never come into play in the film (at least, until a haunting cover of the American traditional of the same title plays over the end credits). It is many things – a sci-fi thriller, a cross-country road chase, a “True Detective”-season-1-esque vision of a spiritually corrupted American South, a family story of reunion and redemption. None of these, however, is particularly obvious from the start; except perhaps that bit about the South, shown here with the same kind of familiarity and affection for America’s heartland that Nichols brought to all his previous features (especially “Mud,” with its clear echoes of Mark Twain). From the moment Roy (Michael Shannon), Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) emerge from a seedy state route motel and jump into an unpainted custom muscle car, Nichols’ vision of time and place is uncannily specific and evocative, even as what is actually going on remains paradoxically, almost infuriatingly unexplained.
The story emerges in elliptical bits and pieces: Roy has kidnapped Alton, his 8-year-old son, in an apparent escape from the Branch-Davidian type cult in which they were both raised. The cult (led, because of course it is, by Sam Shepard, doing wonderfully Sam Shepard-y things) is hot on Roy’s trail, but so is the federal government, led by a pack of FBI agents and an antsy NSA agent (Adam Driver) who exudes the self-assurance of someone five minutes away from realizing they’re in over their head. But Alton seems an oddly willing kidnap “victim”, not to mention just plain odd: he constantly wears a pair of bright blue swimming goggles, is unable to step foot in sunlight, and too often for comfort stares fixedly into the night sky, quite obviously seeing something that we are not (it doesn’t help that he’s played by Lieberher, who was exceptional on the past season of “Masters of Sex” and looks like Stephen King designed a child from scratch). And why do the federal intelligence agencies have such a pressing concern for this case?
Answering all the questions raised by this scenario would spoil some of the surprise, but, as Nichols’ purposefully cryptic method implies, is also beyond the point. As in “Take Shelter,” which tantalizingly refused to acknowledge whether the apocalyptic visions witnessed by Michael Shannon were prophecy or insanity, “Midnight Special” takes its genre outlining and paranoid atmosphere as fertile ground for metaphor. The oblique details of Roy and Jaeden’s journey allows us to see through to the familiar building blocks of their relationship: a father just trying to protect his son, a child trying to make sense of the world around him. There are dark forces at work in America: banal religious extremism, intrusive government surveillance, external threats with motivations beyond our understanding. But Nichols finds optimism in the stability of family (Kirsten Dunst does good work in a too-brief turn as Alton’s birth mother), friendship (Joel Edgerton’s fiercely loyal Lucas) and empathy (Adam Driver’s NSA agent, too inquisitive and compassionate to ever be a true threat to Alton).
A final compliment must also be paid to David Wingo’s wonderful score, a pulsing, ethereal work that sets the tone for the film perfectly. Listening to it again as I write this, it vividly suggests to me that half hour or so before a summer storm – clouds gathering, brewing, and you know the rain is about to break but just not when. “Midnight Special” holds you in that moment for almost two hours, and whether, when it all finally breaks (not with a thunderclap, but more a rolling wave), you find the ending satisfying will likely be entirely up to you.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars