Having a new Jeff Nichols film come around is like visiting an old friend. Nichols’s previous movies—Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud—all hold a collective joy in my cinematic repertoire. Nichols is a distinct American director because his films maintain a locality, specifically focusing on areas in the South, where blue-collar jobs are more abundant, and men and women are more likely to engage in church and traditional roles. In each of Nichols’s films, the dialogue and compositional framing are clutter-free; he’d rather trigger a feeling than let the dialogue overwhelmingly drive the narrative. The words the actors speak usually come in a laconic fashion, signifying a pace of life that is unhurried and glacial. It’s this pace that allows his stories to breathe.
Jeff Nichols’s new film, Midnight Special, is something of a throwback to a Spielbergian Americana of the late 70’s. The cues Nichols utilizes are subtle, but similarities are still noticeable in how both Nichols and Spielberg stage unassuming, rural Americans, throwing them into supernatural scenarios so that we can witness how non-sensationalistic, “salt-of-the-earth” folks would react to sensationalistic situations. This is a new move for Nichols, and it works well. Nichols also borrows ideas from Spielberg’s 70’s filmography when he depicts how parents and children bond and how these bonds are tested. In this case, the sci-fi elements are grounded in practical settings, and even the smaller details, such as muscle cars, signify an era of American pride in manufacturing.
But what elevates Nichols’s Midnight Special is the menace insidiously snaking its way through each sequence. The main characters, Roy and Lucas (played respectively by Michael Shannon, Nichols’s go-to-actor/muse, and Joel Edgerton) are two terrific actors who seamlessly embrace their dangerous mission while exuding an inconspicuous form of non-acting. For Nichols’s actors, artifice or camp is nonexistent. Roy must protect his son, Alton, with the help of Alton’s mother, Sarah (played by a very sympathetic and nurturing Kirsten Dunst), from both the FBI and a doomsday-driven religious cult. Here’s the catch: the reason why Alton is the target of numerous law enforcement agencies and a Branch Davidian-like church is that Alton may or may not hold a secret supernatural in nature.
What really keeps Midnight Special from being a Spielberg Close Encounters pastiche is, as mentioned earlier, the sustained sense of menace. Spielberg quickly lost that sense of dread and peril in a visceral sense after Jaws—his later films were too fantastical and whimsical to generate any real physiological reactions. But Nichols knows how to introduce a threat onto the screen. Roy and Lucas are our protagonists in the film, but I had a difficult time sympathizing with these two men because of how casually and assertively they carried their firearms. They constantly point, draw, and brandish their weapons against anyone who dare stops or hinders their mission. To see no hesitation from these men is alienating, especially if you don’t share the same mentality. The menace, it seems, is both what they are running from and also inside of themselves.
What I ultimately took away from Midnight Special was that the high-risk/high-reward scenario that comes from blending two disparate genres—the more grounded indie drama against the more daunting and fantastical science-fiction elements—can ultimately pay off. Jeff Nichols has reached a point in his career where he has the funds and opportunities to show expansive set-pieces and imagery. His scope of filmmaking has increased with each subsequent film, but Nichols maintains the human touch and a sense of tangible peril in every one of his films. The films are saved by the provincial characters and settings, enough to offset any unpretentious violence or some other unnamed, swallowing menace.