Having been appearing on most anticipated of the year lists since 2014, Jeff Nichols’ much-awaited Midnight Special came as a bit of a surprise to me after having heard mostly mixed reactions leading up to its premiere at Berlinale last month. In the past, I have found Nichols’ work quite aggravating as he uses his robust talent to cover up for his screenplays, which have consistently been the weakest aspects of his work. With Midnight Special, Nichols’ screenplay still marks the weakest are of the film, but it’s for different reasons this time around.
In Take Shelter and especially in Mud, Nichols is much more focused on establishing a very naturalistic approach to the internal struggles of his characters by just putting his audience right into the story without any real set-up. In Midnight Special, Nichols presents this relationship between a father (Michael Shannon) and son (Jaeden Lieberher) in such an unappetizing way from the start as he just drops us into the scene without any exposition, which this desperately needed. This choice helps to go against how Nichols is trying to establish his characters, since it now presents Alton, the son, like this mysterious figure to the audience. There is a definite enigmatic factor to his character that Nichols isn’t able to capture until he begins to really set up what is going on, and that’s not until about halfway into the film. The first half of this just feels like the muttered presentation as Nichols tries to fill in the gaps of what is going on that just a few moments of exposition from the start would have been able to take care of perfectly.
Once things begin to get going, Midnight Special becomes a truly captivating theater experience, as Nichols’ capitalizes on the loud soundscape of his vast environment. He manages to create genuine tension within everything from the vociferous explosions to even quietest moments where he captures this approaching sense of peril marvelously. With a rapturous Spielbergian score, Nichols cranks up the tension to 11, to create some of the tensest scenes that I have witnessed in a movie theater in quite some time. With Loving, Nichols’ next film, already dated to come out in early November, I find myself much more eager to check out what Nichols has next up his sleeve after having seen Midnight Special.