Rough-hewn and reticent, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special might inspire expected memories of Steven Spielberg’s and John Carpenter’s late ‘70s, early ‘80s science fiction films, but only if they were caught on the branches of a David Gordon Green feature. Evoking rustic pastoralism and never erring from Nichols’ customary Southern expanses, the feints toward the supernatural hardly suggest genre sell-out for a director who continues to mutate and evolve his perennial cinematic acts of high-tailing from urban (and suburban) civilization. Exploring the out-of-the-way places Nichols calls home, Midnight Special’s variant of “alien civilization” isn’t found in outer-space or the far-flung future but right in American backyards. If you know where you’re looking of course, and, say what you will about Nichols, but he not only knows the spots, but he’s got an eye on him.
Anyway expecting Star Wars or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind is going to be either sorely disappointed or roundly energized and enlivened, depending on their proclivity for science fiction that emphasizes ennui and mental fatigue over kinetics. A pedal-to-the-metal chase film Midnight Special certainly is, but if the pedal is always pressed, it’s hardly all the way down. Watching compatriots Roy (Michael Shannon, arguably Nichols’ muse) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) whisk young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) away from the law and the constricting confines of society in general, Nichols resists the temptation to double-down on rattling thriller economics. Instead, he opts for elusive foreboding and a folkloric aura of humming sparseness, like a fable catching chills of melancholia beneath shimmers of parental warmth in what ultimately emerges as a paean to love rather than a cinematic ode to violence and hate.
The latter is a mode the film certainly tempts, or at least skirmishes with. Especially toward the beginning, the film is populated with nearly free-associative allusions to boy adventure yarns and classical American signifiers (the religious cult deeply etched into the Bible Belt, the mild-mannered G-man), all whispering in like shadows of other, more violent, stories or tones making their presences known. To this extent, Nichols enjoys a particular brand of mystical vagueness about who his characters are and what genre his film occupies, but this is heartfelt elusiveness without self-conscious cleverness. The film never turns into a puzzle-box, largely because the point isn’t to answer or confront the audiences with pretentious questioning or to toy with us but to tweak expectations about characters we’ve already prefigured or choked with presumption in our minds.
Thus, two men, ostensibly kidnappers, become protectors, a religious cult headed by Sam Shepard mutates from a malevolent, sinister albatross into a cabal of people on a desperate quest for their personal Jesus, and the typically omnipresent government is incarnated in a lanky agent played by Adam Driver who wraps decidedly human determination underneath a compassion for the outsider (flanked by the big boys of Big Government, he’s an outlier and a miscreant himself). Nichols, who also writes, is empathetic to Roy and company (although, unfortunately, he doesn’t muster much use for Kirsten Dunst’s character, the boy’s mother who doesn’t fit into Nichols’ fascination with boys on the run). But he hardly demonizes the other forces at play. Neither the government nor the cult are vultures; they’re all just ingredients in a gumbo of people whisked around each other and searching for a way out.
Maybe that makes the film sound like a diamond-cut social interrogation, which it isn’t; Nichols’ cinema is too eye-level, too intimate to feint toward that sort of portentous “social microcosm” radiance. This is Roy’s story, and Lucas’, and ultimately a tale about two friends (like the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn aggregates in Mud now grown, wearied, and quieted down) on an adventure that might suggest mythical boyish machismo (as in Mud). But in Nichols’ hands, it’s more deflated and worn-down to the level of two adults clinging to some conception of childhood bonds that has possibly eluded them for years.
Nichols’ true gift here though is turning a film in perpetual forward-thrust into a channel for him to visualize a group of outsiders partaking tenuously in civilization, catching glimpses of more stable lives they must ultimately abscond from in order to complete their ever-forward-hurtling mission. Nichols carves out space for digressions and excursions, enough to massage his story’s forward thrust into something more exploratory, willing to err and draw energy from the periphery, to give a little room for breathing. And then ultimately to take when we realize Roy and Lucas can’t afford to reinforce long-term relationships with the world.
A film about people on the move, with only tentative connections to the outside world, Midnight Special epitomizes the dialectic of the song it takes its name from, feeling like a train (ever in motion) and a prison (trapped away from society, and strangled by the very quest that fills the two protagonists with life). This particular perch is visualized in the film’s refrains to people external to the immediate conflict that we can glimpse but do not grasp; like Roy and Lucas, actually connecting to the world remains an ephemeral, existential happenstance that can never be satiated in full. It’s a film about fringe-dwelling people that lives, as a film, on the fringes of not only society but genre, and where visuals continually enliven the fringes of the film. Rather than orphaning his science fiction shenanigans in a placeless void, Nichols energizes them with vivid roadside life.
Much like Mud, Nichols’ blend ultimately stutters slightly when its ambitions eventually conform to the Hollywood machine. While Mud deflated into a Southern-fried thriller, submerging the film’s swampy paranoia into a muck of action in the process, Midnight Special’s swivels into science fiction conclude with a whimper, suggesting less a filmmaker with a purpose for that genre than a desire to show off his ever so slightly enhanced budget (maybe in hopes of hot-wiring the film as his vehicle to a cushy Hollywood blockbuster, although I hope not). Largely, Nichols calls on the power of science fiction as an ancillary accouterment to his desire to avoid any one channel of cinema; the film’s finale misapprehends this balance ever so slightly, conscripting science fiction as the center of the film to its detriment. An omen of a decent “big” filmmaker is well and all, but when Nichols is playing to his strengths we already have a great small-scale filmmaker. And replacing the latter with the former is the kind of trade you only ever find at a crossroads in Mississippi.
But Hollywood is notoriously hostile toward lingering representations of physical space (preferring instead to shuttle characters through events with no flutters of sideline energy). And Nichols’ film is at its best (which is most of the time) when imbibing in this very bespoke physicality of the Southern expanse that Roy and company glimpse through car windows, connected to yet somehow vaguely removed from because they can only seldom stop to enjoy. The essence is indie naturalism, but while that aesthetic has in recent years corroded into an excuse for first timers behind the camera to eschew aesthetics at all, Nichols’ throws in curveballs so casually that they feel like natural extensions of the ever-shifting milieu rather than perpendicular shifts of purpose. How many other Sundance-style indie dramas would swerve into imminent doom hinted in the throbbing sonic baseline that flows like molasses here? Or simmer the apocalypse down to a flotilla of naturalistic, even impressionistic beats interrupted with fluorescent rays of passion and childhood eruption? Or massage such a staple of home-grown performances (it may be Shannon’s greatest performance yet … and he was in Take Shelter)? Relaxed though it may seem, Midnight Special engages in a form of precious hell-raising with its genre precisely for how off-hand it seems. It flows like liquid.