With the advancing front of technology and the growing streaming options, film is undergoing something of a democratization. If you want to make a film, it is getting easier and easier to actually get it done. Now, I am not one of those film critics that hates on the internet for changing the landscape of cinema (largely because it sustains my ability to write and be read). Nevertheless, it has seemed to reduce the scale of film somewhat. A bit of the magic gets drained as walls are broken down and we get ever closer to the filmmakers. But every now and then, you get a film that is so jaw-droppingly fantastic that it renews all hope for the preservation of said magic. Midnight Special is that film.
Nichols has a strength of voice and vision that is reminiscent of the indie boom of the 1990s.
If you are one of those out there who have yet to experience the directorial prowess of Jeff Nichols, first, welcome to 2016, and second, it’s time to catch up. Nichols has a strength of voice and vision that is reminiscent of the indie boom of the 1990s. He builds films filled with characters that disarm and captivate. His films wash over you and latch onto your brain. You watch his films in wonder, because he so beautifully bridges the gap between indie mentalities and straight up cinematic fortitude. But up until now, he has been playing in a small field, with modestly budgeted features and limited theatrical runs. With Midnight Special he is given the space and budget that he deserves and the result is awe inspiring.
As a film reviewer, when I’m watching a film it can be difficult to get out of my own head. If I know that I will be tasked with writing about a feature, it is a struggle to get out of my own way and just experience it. This was not a problem during Midnight Special. Nichols has built this world of complexity and mystery. While it could be argued that this isn’t his first dalliance with the supernatural or science fiction (Take Shelter definitely has some weird stuff going on) it is certainly the first to go full bore. Yet, he doesn’t feel shackled to the contrivances of the genre, but rather assembles his film in much the same fashion as he has before.
Midnight Special, first and foremost, is built on the backs of its characters. They are written with exceptional care, as if Nichols has known them for years. The affection for character development is matched by the performances that litter this cinematic landscape. Michael Shannon is a wonderful muse to Nichols (having appeared in all of his films). Shannon has a quiet strength and does more with glance than most actors can accomplish with a grand monologue. Joel Edgerton is endlessly charming and wonderfully disarming as the closest thing that the audience gets to a proxy. Kirsten Dunst, while somewhat under utilized, imbues her performance with a lived in familiarity that is as effective as it is subtle. Adam Driver navigates the generic government villain with surprising humor. And then there is child actor Jaeden Lieberher, who not only successfully holds his own with these acting juggernauts, but delivers a wonderfully nuanced and contemplative performance that will be the envy of actors three times his age.
In its grandest moments it made me feel like a child, enraptured by the fantastical things on the big screen; a film all my own, a portal to a different place, an escape, and an adventure.
The story is wonderfully detailed, entertaining, mysterious, and endlessly thrilling. The strangest thing is just how familiar it all feels. Ahead of its release it has already garnered comparisons to early Spielberg. And yes, it has many of the staples of an Amblin film, but do not get things twisted, this is a Jeff Nichols film, just on a much larger scale. Nichols hypnotizes his audience and sheds them of preconceived notions and annoying theorizing. Over the entire runtime not a single audience member in my showing could tear their eyes from the screen. Nichols makes you live in his moments and even more so, he makes you want to stay in them.
I saw Midnight Special in a sold out theater surrounded by over a thousand people. But as it grew and enveloped me, everyone else melted away. This is a film with car crashes, grand effects, and more than a few gunshots, yet it feels so shockingly personal. It takes you by the hand and guides you along a journey. I have often wondered what it would have been like to see classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future on the big screen in their initial run. To be a child in those imposingly grand theaters. Midnight Special took me there. Midnight Special is the exemplification of why I love movies so much. In its grandest moments it made me feel like a child, enraptured by the fantastical things on the big screen; a film all my own, a portal to a different place, an escape, and an adventure. Midnight Special is cinematic wonder. It is the very definition of movie magic.
Midnight Special is cinematic wonder. It is the very definition of movie magic.