How many movies does it take to establish a pattern? Jeff Nichols, who I have previously placed on my Mt. Rushmore of directors currently in their 30s, has just released his fourth feature film. The first and third – Shotgun Stories and Mud – are realistically grounded and physically violent stories of men searching their place in a rough world. The second, the marvellously mysterious Take Shelter, is about a man trying to decipher impenetrable tea leaves and make sense of the ineffable. With his latest, Nichols again goes the route of the mysterious and ineffable.
Midnight Special is about a man and a boy. And about power. And about faith. And about worlds that exist deep inside of us and just beyond our reach. If this sounds confusing, it can be. Yet Nichols, along with other current visionaries like Jonathan Glazer and Shane Carruth, has the rare ability to create stories that suggest meaning even while defying easy interpretation.
The man in question is Roy Tomlin, played by Michael Shannon. Shannon has appeared in all of Nichols’ features, sometimes as the lead, and sometimes in a supporting role. He captured all the fear and wonder of the unknown in Take Shelter and here, he does it again. That fear and wonder comes from the boy, Roy’s son Alton. Alton is played by Jaeden Lieberher, who was so effective in a largely contrived role opposite Bill Murray in 2014’s St. Vincent. Lieberher is required to go much farther here and he is stunning, easily moving between the innocence of a child and the power of a god. There have been some outstanding performances by young actors of late, and this rivals the best work of Haley Joel Osment, another child actor of extraordinary range.
Roy has kidnapped Alton from the cultist religious group, known as The Ranch, where he has been raised. Congregants of the Ranch believe that Alton is possessed by a rare, divine power because he has the ability to show them visions of another world. He has prophesied a world-changing event in the near future. Roy, with the help of his friend Lucas and Alton’s mother Sarah, seeks to protect Alton from exploitation and possibly worse. His health is tenuous, as sunlight appears to have a debilitating effect on his well-being.
On its surface then, Midnight Special becomes a chase. Alton’s family is pursued by both members of the Ranch and by powerful government forces who want to learn why this small child seems to be able to read encrypted transmissions as though they were flashing billboards. But what Midnight Special is really about is the wonder of the unknown.
In this, it is more profoundly human than other current attempts, from Terrence Malick’s pretentious navel gazing to the slew of faith-based melodramas flooding the multiplexes. We all know there is more to this world than we can see. We are all simultaneously curious and terrified about what is really out there. Nichols understands this and he finds ways of both visualising and dramatising that sense of wonder without ever dumbing it down. This is indeed a spiritual movie that Christopher Hitchens could have enjoyed.
The ending of Midnight Special leaves questions unanswered. The fate of several key players is either ambiguous or simply ignored. In most movies, this would seem like a failing. But here, Nichols gives us enough material so that we devise our own answers to some questions, while realising that sometimes the answer is “we don’t know.”
There was a four year gap between the release of Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. Mud came out one year later. Now there has been another four year gap to Midnight Special. His next movie, which appears to be a return to realistically grounded drama, will be about Richard and Mildred Loving, the Virginia couple sentenced to jail in 1958 because of their inter-racial marriage. Shannon will again have a role and the movie is set for release later this year.
I don’t know how Nichols works – or whether the timeline of his releases is due to distribution issues or other non-artistic considerations. But I’d like to think that he simply needs time, before doing a movie like Take Shelter or Midnight Special, to build up his reserves. Because these are deep mysteries he is probing, and no one does it as well right now.