Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

01 August 2016

Jeff Nichols' New Little Gem

Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me

Jeff Nichols is just so good. Midnight Special is his fourth film (his fifth, Loving, will be out during awards season) and it is a tense, taught, always exciting sci-fi movie that is full of surprises and twists. I don't want to say too much about this, because I don't want to spoil anything, but I can say that Midnight Special is about a dad trying to help his son, who has special powers possibly related to Cyclops from the X-men. He wears goggles and can only travel at night because the sun does very weird things to him. But dad (Nichols muse Michael Shannon) and another man (we don't really know much about who this guy is at the beginning, but he's played by Joel Edgerton who gives a superb performance) are trying to get the boy somewhere or are running away from something.

Do not spoil this movie by watching trailers. Just watch it without knowing anything.

Jaeden Liberher in Midnight Special
All becomes clear as the movie progresses, and Nichols alternates the sharing of plot information that we need and terrific suspense sequences beautifully. Nichols has also created a kind of alternate world (as, indeed, he did with Mud and Take Shelter) so that the film, if it is a science-fiction film, really works like a mystery more than anything else. On one hand, we watch the fugitives run. On the other hand, we watch a government official (Adam Driver) try to figure out what is going on, and we learn simultaneously with him. But what in the hell is going on? Who are the good guys? Where did this boy with super-powers come from? This we will begin to understand only slowly, and as in Mud, more and more is revealed as the movie progresses even though our perspective this time is not the partial understanding of a kid but the alleged masterful understanding of law enforcement and the federal government.

From Take Shelter
But exposition? Forget about it. I kept thinking maybe we would go back in time in order to explain something about how we got here. But forget about it. This ain't no big Hollywood movie, and the questions with which we are left are doing their own kind of work, lingering and haunting like the troubling ending of Take Shelter.

Nichols' worlds are not places that we can understand completely. Or, rather, what Nichols' films give us are our own world with the wonderful returned to it. If we are asking what in the hell is going on here? How can this happen? the film is reminding us that if our science knows a great deal, if we think we can understand the human brain (as in Take Shelter), there are still many many mysteries out there; there are still inexplicable wonders to be explored. And not just that: we are looking for mystery. The characters in Midnight Special want, like Fox Mulder, to believe in something else. And Midnight Special (and I think Nichols in general) is interested in reminding us that there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen in Starman (1984)
In short, this movie is masterfully directed. Nichols gets great performances out of everyone (the other performers are Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard, Jaeden Liberher, Paul Sparks, David Jensen and Bill Camp). David Wingo's haunting minimalist score is all low beats and fast drums. And the movie is an edge-of-your-seat, fast-paced, action/mystery/chase/sci-fi kind-of-thing that I loved. It's also a bit of an homage to late 1970s early 1980s sci-fi cinema, especially Close Encounters and Starman. This is definitely one of the best of 2016 so far. I can't wait for Loving to be released in November.

Ooooo. And pay very close attention to the ending.