DIR/WRI: Jeff Nichols • PRO: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones • DOP: Adam Stone • ED: Julie Monroe • DES: Chad Keith • MUS: David Wingo • CAST: Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton
Jeff Nichols is a very rare type of filmmaker. With films like Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, he has proven consistently that he has an innate ability to write smart dialogue and imbue his films with a very certain type of mood, all the while managing to keep his films focussed on what is ultimately their most important element: the characters. And now, he’s been given a larger budget with which to tell a larger, more sprawling story with his latest feature, Midnight Special. And while his talent for writing characters and keeping a consistent mood throughout is still present, he doesn’t seem to have gotten the hang of handling large, sprawling narratives with multiple plot threads, characters and factions yet. The result is a film which, although good in its own right, is probably the weakest of all his features.
Midnight Special tells the story of Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) who must go on the run with his telekinetically-charged young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, in a star-making performance) and his close friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) in order to rescue his son from a federal government that wants to know how this kid has access to all their secret data, and a religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) reminiscent of the Branch Davidians, who see Alton as their profit/saviour.
The plot manages to have a large scope, simply by cutting the exposition to a minimum while dropping us headfirst into a narrative that’s already in motion. A lot of major events, such as Alton discovering his powers, and the construction of the religious sect built around his powers and predictions, has already taken place, and it’s very clear that we’re witnessing the tail-end of a much larger story.
But like all of Nichols movies, and good fiction in general, a simple plot overview really doesn’t do it justice. What we’re really here for is the father-son relationship between Roy and Alton, and the fact that it works so well is mostly due to Shannon’s spectacular performance as Roy. Like many of Shannon’s great performances (Boardwalk Empire, Take Shelter, The Iceman) he uses his face extremely well, using it rather than the dialogue to articulate Tomlin’s feelings and thought processes. Very few actors can pile joy for the return of their son and fear for their son’s safety into one brief look, but Shannon pulls it off spectacularly. Throughout the film, Roy comes across as behaving very harshly toward his son, forcing him to push on despite his ever-weakening state as their journey nears its end, and although Roy’s character could easily have come across as cruel and unfeeling under another actor, Shannon manages with mere looks to imbue this man with a deep compassion for his young, gifted son.
Once you strip away all the ancillary government conspiracies, and the religious phenomena, what you have here is a simple story about a man trying to do right by his son. It’s just unfortunate that Nichols keeps cutting away from the father-son dynamic in order to give more screen-time to the government’s investigation of Alton, a sub-plot which while good, never manages to be as compelling as the father-son narrative, and in the end it just becomes an annoying distraction. Nichols just isn’t as good at the whole government-conspiracy plot as he is at the small character-pieces he used to make his name..
The screenplay is definitely one of this films stronger attributes. This film that is more than happy to leave you in the dark, metaphorically as well as literally. Not only does a lot of the first half of this film take place under velvety black skies (photographed beautifully by D.O.P. Adam Stone), but it has no problem leaving plot points ambiguous, and it’s more than happy for you to try to figure out what’s going on here.
The ending isn’t stellar, but then again this is one of those films that’s all about the journey, not the destination. It’s about the message, not the narrative. This isn’t the story of a man trying to get his son to where he needs to be, or at least it’s not solely about that. It’s about a man trying to do right by his son, it’s about our desire, our need to believe in something concrete, and the forces outside our control, like family ties and adversity, that drive us forward and force us to keep going despite the odds.
The editing from Julie Monroe is superb, lingering on characters faces long enough for the emotion to sink in, while at the same time assuring that the pace never gets too slow for its own good. As well as the pacing, there’s an admirable restraint here, for the first half Monroe will cut away before any acts of violence actually occur, so that in the second half when gunfights actually happen, the sight of blood and the sound of gunshots actually carries some weight because it hasn’t been like this since the film started.
Overall, while this film isn’t great in and of itself, it does still manage to impress, and more importantly, it works as a sign of Nichols’ potential for more films that reach the standard of Mud and Take Shelter in the future. The atmosphere, the tension, the characters, Nichols has all three down to a tee, and, judging from his movies, he knows how to get an excellent performance from his actors. If he learns how to handle big, sprawling storylines as well as he handles small character pieces, then there’ll be pretty much nothing he can’t do.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Midnight Special is released 8th April 2016