There is faith, and there are facts. Fact: with his sci-fi chase/road-movie “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols becomes only the fifth American director to have competed at both Cannes and Berlin during the current decade. The Arkansan may not yet have the renown of Terrence Malick, Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh or Wes Anderson, but time is very much on the side of the 37-year-old, whose fourth feature is by some way his most commercial to date. Much too "commercial," indeed, to snare the Berlinale's Golden Bear—but the prospect of Nichols following recent Best Director laureates Paul Thomas Anderson, David Gordon Green and Richard Linklater requires little suspension of disbelief.
Linklater is from Texas; Green grew up there but was born across the Arkansas state line in Little Rock—hometown of the softly-spoken Nichols, who has, like them, quietly built his career in a methodical, old-fashioned way. He's accumulated fans and critical plaudits with each of the films he’s written and directed to date—“Shotgun Stories” (2007), “Take Shelter” (2011), “Mud” (2012)—each of them calling upon the formidable presence of Nichols' towering thespian totem Michael Shannon; each of them set in the American south and paying close attention to the area's natural landscapes; each of them dealing with masculinity in the context of father-son relationships of biological and non-biological types. This is already a distinctive body of work, assembled with craftsmanlike care in tandem with an artistic—and explicitly cinematic—sensibility.
His (reported) budgets have steadily increased along the way: $250,000 to $3m to $10m for 2012’s Cannes competitor “Mud” (unheralded pre-dawn of the McConnaissance) to $18m for “Midnight Special.” While much more than all of Nichols' series of working-class protagonists will ever earn in their lifetimes combined, that's a startlingly tiny sum for a picture whose special effects stand comparison to all but the most opulently extravagant of 21st century Hollywood blockbusters, and whose high-toned supporting cast includes Adam Driver (red hot after “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”), Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst.
It's also $6m less than John Carpenter spent over three decades ago on “Starman”—the picture which Nichols freely cites as the template for his “Midnight Special” screenplay, just as he was articulately frank about the Mark Twain influences on “Mud.” And while admirers of serious-minded, adult-oriented, intelligent genre film-making will have their fingers crossed for “Midnight Special” when it opens across the USA mid-March, it's only an "original" story in the current context of a cinematic culture so grotesquely dominated by remakes, sequels and comic-book adaptations.
The familiarity of so much of “Midnight Special”—which revolves around the supernatural powers of unearthly child Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and his frantic transportation across the south by his father Roy (Shannon) and the latter's pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton) for a mysterious rendezvous—cuts both ways. Nichols knows that we've all seen “E.T.,” that most of us have seen “Close Encounters,” that many of us know “Starman,” and can coast along on references and homages and Spielbergian/Carpenteresque moods, blithe blendings of X-Men (white rays sometimes shoot from Alton’s eyes, Cyclops-style) and X-Files for well over an hour.
The early and middle stages are superbly handled: tense, atmospheric, exciting, punctuated with rousingly effective set-pieces and leavened with dry humor. When push comes to shove, however, and Nichols has to come up with a third act to stand comparison with his illustrious role-models, he falls far short. The big final-reel reveal—after so much anticipation and skillful manipulation of expectations—is a letdown, leaving too many questions unanswered and undermining what should be the kind of knockout emotional climax which “Starman” so gloriously delivered. Bathos trumps pathos.
Indeed, the actual climax comes just before the one-hour point, when Alton—up until this point drastically allergic to sunlight—demands, with the indomitable precocity that’s his trademark—to experience the dawn. As Roy stands in a field, with the boy in his arms, peering with great anguish at the eastern horizon behind a line of trees, the suspense is no less unbearable for the fact that we know that what we're about to see is the most quotidian thing in the world: as The Beloved sang in 1990, it's just the sun rising. But as the rays hit individual blades of grass, accompanied by David Wingo's surging score and captured by Adam Stone's widescreen cinematography, the effect is near-overwhelming.
It is a basic structural defect in the screenplay that nothing in the remaining 50 minutes reaches this kind of peak. Not for the first time, it's Nichols the scriptwriter that lets Nichols the director down. The earlier films often played fast and loose with plausibility at crucial stages, and in “Midnight Special” the finale hinges on a silly bit of business involving access through country roads supposedly sealed off by the military.
Ah, but what about suspension of disbelief? There are many who have sufficient faith in Nichols to forgive or overlook such minor lapses, and the power of such faith is the recurring theme of “Midnight Special.” The title is borrowed from a folk-song popular in American jails, relating to a superstition that prisoners who felt the lights of the eponymous passing train on their faces would soon be released, would gain liberation and thus salvation. Harry Dean Stanton sings it in Stuart Rosenberg's “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), and here it's performed over the end credits by the Tennessee country-punk five/piece Lucero—guitar and vocals by Jeff Nichols' brother Ben.
Roy, formerly a member of an extremist religious sect called The Ranch—leader 'Brother Calvin' is played by Sam Shepard, imposing in his brace of scenes—is a "believer" from beginning to end, his faith in his son's powers (perhaps alien, perhaps messianic) never once wavering. Rather like the storm-fearing dad he played in “Take Shelter,” he “believes in something” that others don’t, and he believes in it with titanic certainty.
And while many road-miles are covered in a picture which has no trains but plenty of planes and automobiles, the real journey is internal—and it's performed by Lucas, a law-enforcement officer who is explicitly presented as a man of reason, an individual who trusts only the evidence of his own eyes. In a film cleverly marbled with religious allusions, the character’s name is derived from St Luke, that most scientific of evangelists ("Alton," meanwhile, is presumably a nod to noir maestro John Alton, patron saint of cinematographers).
What happens to father and son at dawn in that field, however, is enough to shatter his skepticism—his embrace of faith is “Midnight Special”'s true turning-point. Whether we're given enough material to swallow this "conversion" is another matter—Lucas isn’t there to see it, he is simply told about it second-hand. Edgerton, in the film's most nuanced and engaging performance, certainly does his best to make us believe. Stocky, buzz-cut Lucas, with his tough little face and empathetic, pale eyes, is the real heart and soul of “Midnight Special,” decked out in blue-collar duds that feather the cap of costume-designer Erin Benach. Lovely touch: tucked in the left back-pocket of his jeans, a pair of well-worn workmen’s gloves. And they never come out.