“Y’all have no idea what you’re dealing with, do ya?”
Michael Shannon is, without a doubt, my favorite actor working today. There’s an unmatched level of intensity in his screen presence that ranges from hilarious to alarming to terrifying depending on how he wants you to react, but he always gets a reaction. Some directors aren’t entirely sure how to harness this intensity & Shannon is often asked to dial it to eleven in every scene. This is fun to watch, but not necessarily the full extent of what his unique talent can bring to the screen. The madman actor does, however, have one long term collaborator in Jeff Nichols who knows exactly how to put his talent to full use. Jeff Nichols often allows Michael Shannon to play his intensity quietly, providing the actor more room to fully do his thing than any other director I can think of (outside maybe Herzog in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? or the show runners on Boardwalk Empire).
With Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols continues his career pattern of alternating between intimate thrillers & ambitious sci-fi. As far as ambition goes, this marks his riskiest, most far-reaching work to date, drowning out even the widespread mania of his sophomore work (and last sci-fi outing) Take Shelter. Mirroring the best eras of sci-fi cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter, comparison points you wouldn’t want to evoke lightly, Midnight Special is massive enough in its imagination & awe-inspiring mystery to establish Nichols as one of the best young talents in the industry today. Much like folks like Jonathan Glazer & Miranda July, his catalog is modestly small, but each film is a preciously crafted gift well worth waiting for. Nichols & Shannon have been close collaborators on four films in the last decade and Midnight Special easily stands as their most rounded & complete work since their first outing in 2007’s near-perfect Shotgun Stories. It’s also the best example of sci-fi action & supernatural mystery by any filmmaker in recent memory, perhaps going back for years, which is impressive given its pedigree as a mid-budget work from a director who’s still working just outside the Hollywood system.
It’s difficult to speak too extensively on Midnight Special‘s plot without ruining what makes the movie, well, special. For so much of the film’s runtime the audience is left in the dark with only brief flashes of game-changing revelations (literally) illuminating exactly what is going on. Just getting an exact handle on who’s involved in the film’s sci-fi chase plot (kidnappers, parents, cultists, federal agents, etc.) and whether their intent is good or malicious can be a lot to process. One thing in the film is clear: there is an 8 year old boy at the center of the chaos who has a mysterious, perhaps supernatural connection to a world beyond ours. The boy, Alton Meyer, is destined to travel to a specific location for a specific date, but the purpose of that mission & the source of that intel is largely unclear. As one character puts it, “That’s all we have. This date & place is everything.” As an audience member, you’re better off not knowing any more than that yourself. Like the characters surrounding the young, enigmatic Alton Meyer have faith that the child’s very existence serves some higher purpose, you just have to have faith as an audience that Midnight Special will culminate all of these obfuscated, grandiose elements into a worthwhile whole. I am here to witness to the fact that there is indeed a payoff. I’ve seen the light. I am a true believer.
Midnight Special is like a perfectly calibrated feature-length episode of The X-Files, but without the sex appeal. The only thing I can really fault the movie for is not taking the time to develop the emotional impact of its central relationships the way past Jeff Nichols films have. The air of mystery is so oppressively heavy here that I was far more concerned about what would happen next & what small clues might be lurking in the details than I was with the film’s emotional core. This is kind of surprising for a plot centered around a vulnerable child in worlds of trouble and it may very well be the case that its emotional impact will hit me harder in future viewings now that I know where the plot is going. Honestly, though, these concerns feel downright minuscule in light of what the film accomplishes as a mid-budget sci-fi. Jeff Nichols creates an intimidatingly massive world here with the most basic of tools. Slight visual references to comic book staples like X-Men & Superman and real-life doomsday cults like Heaven’s Gate & Jonestown carry so much significance in terms of storytelling economy that the world’s most expensive CGI team couldn’t muster with a limitless budget & absence of a deadline. Just look to Alton Meyer’s headgear (plastic ear muffs & swimming goggles) to see how otherworldly the film can make even the most basic elements feel.
Nichols & Shannon have quietly built a concise little catalog of small, intimate stories with massive emotional impact in their collaborations. Midnight Special may be the director’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of the narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. Shannon is similarly subdued & bare bones in his performance, which is a nice change from the long line of explosive roles that ask him to go larger than life with every breath. Together, they’ve delivered an incredible work with a near-limitless scope, but it’s one built an intricately detailed foundation of grounded, believable worldbuilding & old fashioned character work. Midnight Special may allow its ideas to outweigh its emotion in a general sense, but you never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation. Honestly, the most difficult thing to believe in this wildly imaginative film is that there are working payphones in rural Texas in 2016. It might not be my favorite collaboration of theirs to date (that’s a bit of a close call), but it’s easily recognizable as their most ambitious & it really ups the ante for where their work is headed & what they could achieve with the right resources.