Movies

Keeping Faith in Jeff Nichols

His soulful new sci-fi Midnight Special confirms that he’s a magical directorial talent—who’s making increasingly flawed films.

Jaeden Lieberher as Alton in director Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller Midnight Special.

Jaeden Lieberher as Alton in director Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller Midnight Special.

Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros

Midnight Special begins in a dank motel room. The windows have been boarded shut. Nancy Grace spews an Amber Alert through the tinny speakers of the tube television in the corner. Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are the kind of guys who would look like kidnappers even if they didn’t have a small boy stashed in the crevasse between the room’s two moldy beds. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) sits on the floor with swimming goggles over his eyes, strangely docile and unperturbed for someone who’s meant to have been abducted; the kid hardly even seems to flinch when Roy yanks him into the backseat of his 1972 Chevelle. There’s no indication of where they’re going, but Lucas’ decision to don a pair of night-vision goggles and drive with the taillights off suggests that they need to get there in a hurry.

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What few details we’re able to glean about Alton come from the various factions pursuing him. First introduced is Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the weary figurehead of the religious sect from whose compound the boy was snatched. Already a burgeoning cult leader when they met, he was so impressed with Alton that he pivoted his entire theology to reposition the kid as its messiah. The U.S. government seems to think that the zealots may not be too far off the mark; as the film begins, the FBI is preparing to detain all of Calvin’s followers, determined to learn more about Alton’s abilities and where Roy—the boy’s father!—might be taking him. The chase is on.

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A sci-fi spectacle that hides a simple parental drama under its hood, Midnight Special is the fourth feature from Jeff Nichols, the young Arkansan auteur behind Shotgun Stories, Mud, and Take Shelter. The film rattles with the restless worry of a new parent, the unavoidable knowledge that a father can’t protect his child from a vast and uncertain world.

Shot on 35 mm, careful with the CG, and glazed with a gooey synth score by David Wingo, Midnight Special harkens all the way back to the slack-jawed sense of wonder that characterized the glory days of Amblin Entertainment. It’s the rare sci-fi saga that’s told without a trace of cynicism or sinisterness. While the film has its fair share of antagonists, it’s telling that it lacks a proper villain. Not even Adam Driver, excellent as a curious federal agent, is allowed to embrace the dark side. (In fact, he’s the closest thing this largely humorless adventure has to comic relief.)

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If that doesn’t sound like the typical formula for a commercial film, it isn’t. A small movie from a big studio, Midnight Special lands somewhere in the limbo between the minis and the majors, often borrowing from the best of both worlds—Nichols using the new resources at his disposal without becoming overwhelmed by them. Take Shelter, made independently in 2011, showed Nichols’ powerfully succinct touch with special effects, and the resourceful way he deploys them here should be studied by directors who typically command much larger budgets. If Marvel ever develops an interest in making good movies, its executives could confidently hire Nichols just on the strength of the jarringly effective sequence in which a satellite is yanked out of orbit, splinters in the atmosphere, and hurtles towards Alton’s location outside a highway rest stop. Similarly, the film’s most frustrating flaws (which litter its second half like roadkill) feel unrelated to its financing, as they’re characteristic of the same mistakes that Nichols was making long before Warner Brothers ever returned his calls.

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So let’s dispel with this fiction that Jeff Nichols doesn’t know what he’s doing. Jeff Nichols knows exactly what he’s doing—he always has and he always will. Midnight Special is rather plainly a story about faith. Alton’s road trip really only takes us from one arbitrary point on the map to another, because the only journey that Nichols is interested in chronicling is our own. Taking us from obliviousness, to skepticism, and finally to belief, Midnight Special invites viewers to experience true surrender to the unknown (and, ultimately, the unknowable). The narrative trajectory is like a simulation of what it must be like to encounter a child like Alton, who seems pretty normal until a thick blue tractor beam shoots out of his eyes and offers anyone caught in its light a vision of … something. But all parents see their kid as the second coming; the challenge is in surrendering children to the world at large and trusting that the universe will do right by the next generation (and vice versa).

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That’s a fraught emotional process, readying yourself to relinquish your child. The problem is that Nichols fails to dramatize it. As powerful as Shannon can be with a steadfast grimace, Roy is a painfully underwritten father figure who manages to drive a thousand miles without ever going anywhere—our understanding of his nature evolves over the course of the film, but he’s too static to sell the big sentiments when Nichols goes for the heart in the third act. Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst is a glorified prop in the role of Alton’s mom, as Nichols’ Southern-fried machismo once again reduces women to nothing more than their function in the plot. It’s Lucas, who at first just seems like a stooge, who turns out to be the film’s most dynamic character. A childhood friend of Roy’s who’s just as mystified by Alton as we are, his overnight devotion to the cause paves the way for the story’s only interesting twist.

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Midnight Special eventually sputters to a conclusion that confuses vagueness for ambiguity. The most compelling questions it leaves behind don’t have to do with its plot but with its creator: How much time should a young director have to make good on his potential? At what point does an abundance of promise begin to feel like a debt that’s increasingly overdue? With each passing (and distractingly passable) film Nichols makes, these questions grow more pointed. The man is a massive talent and a potentially major force in the future of our homegrown cinema, but this is his fourth consecutive feature that inches toward a greatness it only seems capable of appreciating from a distance. And yet, it’s harder still not to have faith.

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