Midnight Special is a film written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Nichols is a director very near to my heart, not only because he hails from Little Rock, Arkansas, but because the things he values in his writing are things that I also aspire to accomplish in my own writings. He tells his stories through compelling characters by letting them create the story rather than tossing them into the thick-of-things with a pat on the back and wishing them good luck.
His first film, Mud, is especially dear to me because of the kind of nostalgic value I place in it. Mud is about a young boy growing up in DeWitt, Arkansas, which is the same small town that nearly my entire family grew up in. Not only is it a place that helped shape who they have become, but my time there has also had a huge impact on myself. Is there honestly a whole lot that’s special about DeWitt? Probably not; Mud probably could have taken place and been filmed in plenty of other small towns and it would still be just as good to anyone else. But it wasn’t, and so I must admit my bias for this movie.
When I heard that Midnight Special was coming out earlier this year, I did get really excited to see it. Unfortunately, due to external circumstances (mainly my laziness and easily-distracted mind), I was not able to see this film in theaters. I must apologize to my readers for waiting 4 months to actually take the time to watch this film, because I really enjoyed it, and wish I would have taken advantage of the opportunity to convince others to go out and support this “hometown Hero” of mine.
The story and writing as a whole is probably both the most intriguing part of this film as well as the most frustrating part of this film. So before that gives you any ideas about the quality of the writing, I’ll tackle the frustrating things first.
If you are a person that enjoys having clarity and closure in a movie, then this is your fair warning. This film is extremely lacking in the departments of detail and explanation. Normally, I would be okay with this, except for the fact that this is a Sci-Fi film at heart. Sci-Fi films don’t need to have real science behind them, but they still need to have either their science or their fiction explained so that our sense of wonder can be triggered. In Midnight Special, things are not explained. You will not find out what the significance is behind the location they are trying to reach, you will not find out what exactly happens when Alton uses his “soul-staring” powers, and you will definitely not find out what the implications of the last few scenes are.
Now, that being said, the story is extremely compelling. As the audience, you are almost literally thrown into the story from the very first opening shot (and the opening scene is incredibly cool, by the way). The story does not hold your hand throughout the movie, it expects you to either keep up or figure things out on your own, because it is pretty much devoid of any expositional dialogue. These may sound like critiques, but they are actually very high praises. Nichols was able to keep my full attention for every second of this film’s run-time through his exciting, emotional, and downright excellent story telling.
Pretty much every cast member in this film does an excellent job. Some stick out more than others, but I am tempted to attribute that to Nichols’ writing and how he makes the most important characters the most compelling. Michael Shannon (recently famous for playing General Zod in Man of Steel), Joel Edgerton (actor/director of The Gift from Australia), and Jaeden Lieberher are definitely the stars of this film, as they are its 3 main characters. From the very opening shot, the relationship between these three never stops developing and all three were very good. Nichols seems to have a special talent for finding very talented children to act in his films.
Everyone else, namely Adam Driver (Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars films) and Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane in the old Spiderman movies) are also good, but have a lot less screen time and development.
Like I said in the Story section, Nichols uses almost no expositional dialogue, that means he has to tell his story either through character or through visuals, and he tends to prefer to do both. There are so many great sequences in which every character is completely silent, but the audience still knows what’s happening because of the characters’ reactions and because of Nichols’ direction. There’s one scene in particular that comes to my mind: Nichols leads you to think that an epic car chase is about to take place, but then the characters hit a huge traffic jam and are forced to move very slowly through traffic. The anxious looks on their faces and the shots that Nichols uses tell you everything you need to know about what is happening in the scene. While a traffic jam sounds boring, especially after hyping up a car chase, I promise you that the way this scene is done is much more suspenseful and thrilling than a fancy car chase would have been.
Nichols is simply an excellent story teller, and while the focus of his stories may be his characters, his visuals definitely help in developing them.
I bought it on iTunes if that tells you anything. David Wingo scores this film and I loved his score. It can be intense and emotional when it needs to, but mostly, it’s memorable. I definitely got some Hans Zimmer vibes from it, which may be playing a small role in why everyone tends to describe this film as a “retelling of Superman as a child.”
X-Factor: 5/10, I’m Picky
This X-Factor is going to tie back into the frustrating part of Nichols writing that I mentioned in the Story section. The entire plot of this film relies on the fact that Alton needs to be at an exact location at a very specific time. Because of how much is staked on this, you would think that the pay off in the end is logical in some way. Nope, there seemed to be absolutely no rhyme or reason to this, other than we needed Alton to be going somewhere so that people could chase him. We’re led to believe that he needs to be at this location so that he can [Potential Spoiler] transcend, travel, or teleport into this other dimension/world that exists on top of ours. However, the way we’re shown it, it seems that Alton could have done this at anytime and from anywhere, and it just really kind of bothered me [End Spoiler], because it seemed like lazy writing more than anything else, which is not really a characteristic that is common in Nichols’ work.
Midnight Special, while very different from Mud, was not as enjoyable for me. I’m not totally convinced that Nichols is cut out for Sci-Fi type stories yet, although I do understand why he did the things he did. He wanted to remain vague so that each person who saw his film could let it mean whatever they wanted it to mean. That’s all fine and dandy to me, but I personally still want you to develop your story as much as possible. Just because you don’t explain to me why something happens the way it happens, doesn’t mean I can’t interpret it in my own way. In fact, this is kind of a minor pet peeve of mine: you should always have a reason and meaning behind your writing, but you don’t necessarily have to say it out loud or tell other people that they’re wrong. Creating a story that is universal for the sake of being universal tells me that 1) you were trying to be safe and dumbing it down in an attempt to get more people to like it, and 2) that you might not have had a meaning or reason behind your writing in the first place.
Now, all that being said, Midnight Special was recently released on DVD, and I would strongly suggest watching it. It’s fun, interesting, and still a very well made film.