Midnight Special, a $23 million, sci-fi car chase through the southern states, opened in select theaters on March 18th. Then, due to extreme popularity among fans, Warner Bros. expanded the release to more theaters throughout the country. The first expansion comes on April 1st, then the 8th, 15th and 22nd. In the film, Roy (Michael Shannon) kidnaps his super-powered son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) back from a dangerous cult while evading an FBI investigation. It’s the fourth film from Jeff Nichols, a director known for critically acclaimed yet relatively unknown films — Shotgun Stories in 2007, Take Shelter in 2011 and Mud in 2012 — and his first attempt at a blockbuster-sized hit. Nichols is vying to become his own version of a Nolan-level name, with the franchises to prove it. Below, two of our Culture Desk writers discuss the successes and failures of his latest film.
A Personal Tale Told in Blockbuster Proportions
Michael Shannon, a favorite of Nichols’s who has appeared in all of his films, is the stand-out here. The director has mentioned that he’s drawn to the way Shannon’s face holds emotion, making him a perfect fit for a quiet, ex-cult survivor. Lucid but just unhinged enough to affirm that he’s seen some shit, his combination of wide-eyes over a clamped, square jaw effectively portrays a man committed to muscling his way through the surreal thing his life has become. Juxtaposed against Shannon is the young Jaeden Lieberher, who accesses a Macaulay Culkin (circa Home Alone) level of cuteness, even while speaking almost entirely in omniscient three-word sentences.
Nichols relies heavily on cross-cutting in Midnight Special, jumping between concurrent moments in separate locations: the car, the church, the FBI investigation. But even when he decides to remain in one place, scenes unfold in layers of momentum and simultaneity: a preacher dismisses a search party before entering into an already full sanctuary awaiting his sermon that will shortly be interrupted by an FBI sting already en route. The viewer watches one moment on screen as the next swells behind it, crashing as soon as the first finishes. The effect is disorienting enough to keep things interesting in spite of the film’s pensive plot.
Nichols constructs his own brand of southern hospitality, inviting the viewer in, but refusing to open all the doors.
In an interview with Wired, Michael Shannon lumped Nichols with the likes of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in his place in modern southern culture. Midnight Special is particularly effective in its blend of sci-fi and Southern Gothic storytelling, accentuated nicely by director of photography Adam Stone’s penchant for long shots of landscape and winding roads.
However, Nichols constructs his own brand of southern hospitality, inviting the viewer in but refusing to open all doors. In all of his scripts (the director writes them himself), Nichols revels in ambiguity. He openly admits to his lack of interest in plot, preferring scenes that develop his characters rather than complete a narrative arc. Midnight Special was allegedly the leanest script he’s ever written and Nichols claims to have aggressively lopped off sections of exposition on either end, which is surprising given the amount of emphasis placed on the movie’s conclusion. This is not to say that Midnight Special wraps itself up neatly, but it does conclude in a big way — something new to Nichols brand of storytelling. While his second film, Take Shelter, hints at its conclusion, Midnight Special throws open the drapes, thrusting a special effects cadenza at the viewer all at once and at the last minute.
But regardless of how unreal the ending gets, much of Midnight Special is staid realism and constant, pervasive gravitas (Nichols admitted the story was inspired while processing his young son’s febrile seizure) making it compelling, though not so fun to watch. It is an intensely personal tale, blown into blockbuster proportions.
— Ted Jamison
The Blue of Sci-Fi Realism
A story of information, told through color.
For much of its run time, until the staggering final act, Jeff Nichols latest film, Midnight Special, is dominated by blue: cult congregations clad in denim jackets and work jeans; a pale white youngster in vibrant swim goggles; pay phone banks and the cars parked next to them. The blue is dirty and faded, the kind of blue not found in the polished lines of sci-fi films set in the utopian future, but a 1980s washed-too-many-times blue of the past. It’s the blue of dusk.
To put a point on it, which Nichols, who is known to leave everything up to interpretation, would never do, this blue light is a confused light. While sunlight is white and pure, as it travels to Earth, our atmosphere scatters the blue spectrum in all directions. So while the sun remains a yellow/white/reddish ball in the sky, the blues having been scattered away into the periphery of the sky. Sky blue is a filtered perspective, not quite sunlight, but not darkness.
In Midnight Special, this fragmented, diffused light mirrors the information in the film, as it’s understood by both the characters and the viewers. Against the exploration of parenthood and sacrifice (with a father protecting his son at all costs from a religious cult and the government) information in the film is constantly rushing across state lines, over satellites and being retold and reinterpreted. The characters’ differing interpretations of this information is the source of the film’s main schism: at what point does what you know about a little boy become more important than the life of the little boy.
Against the exploration of parenthood and sacrifice, with a father protecting his son at all costs from a religious cult and the government, information in the film is constantly rushing across state lines, over satellites and being retold and reinterpreted.
As Alton, played by Jaeden Lieberher and his father, Roy, played by Michael Shannon, travel across the South, the cult, the government and Roy himself are all rushing to find out what exactly is going on, and what will happen on March 6 — an ominous date laid out in the film’s opening scenes. Roy only knows he wants the best for his son, even if he doesn’t yet know what that means. Alton also knows nothing about his own powers, but he knows a lot more than he should about military secrets (one of his super-talents), which attracts the attention of the US government, who think he’s a weapon. The cult, and their in-pursuit henchmen, understands only that Alton is otherworldly, which places him at the center of their divine worship. Everyone interprets Alton as something entirely distinct: family, weapon, deity. And it’s the viewer’s understanding that they are all a little right.
As the film closes, red begins to show up to contrast the blue: a sunrise; the Isuzu in the final trip; bloodstains. When March 6th finally comes and reds begin to flash more noticeably over the screen, each answer that’s given also leaves the viewer with more questions. This is the most frustrating aspect of the film, but hyper-realism doesn’t allow for comfortable watching, only future pondering. Nichols said he doesn’t want to be another Jim Jarmusch — a white-haired indie director specializing in the weird, with a cult following — and that while his personal style is vital to his films, he’s going after blockbuster hits, not a life of passion projects.
Watching the film, the viewer is a detective on a wild ride. After the film, they revisit the setting, move through the set pieces and rewatch scenes in their head, the film bleeding out of its 111 minute run time. Midnight Special, made with $23 million, worked with more than double the combined budget of Nichols’s first films. It’s Nichols attempt to jump to the mainstream, with his personality intact. Only time will tell if blue is the color of the next blockbuster director. — J. Travis Smith