By Ray Pride
Thematically, Arkansas-born writer-director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature draws capably from the models of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.” and “Starman,” as well as Nichols’ own affinity for spare widescreen compositions akin to Clint Eastwood movies of that filmmaking era.
“Midnight Special” is a shaggy God story, withholding secrets without being precious, and hardly ever explaining. A boy is taken from the compound of a religious sect led by a patriarch (Sam Shepard) who’s convinced that eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a vessel for languages and numbers from God. The boy also has a tendency when disturbed to disrupt everything around him through blue light that shoots from his eyes. The abductor is his father, Roy (Michael Shannon, bringing a taciturn, complex characterization to a Nichols film for the fourth time), and an accomplice (Joel Edgerton). The layers of reasons for their cross-country escape are slowly revealed, including meetings with his mother (Kirsten Dunst) and a quizzical NSA agent (Adam Driver) also curious about Alton’s talents or origins. Visually, dramatically, things stay cool, at a distance or middle distance. Like ”Close Encounters”’ Roy Neary, this father takes a son on a journey to an unknown place, a proving ground.
Writing about movies, you can fall into a trap, relying on the tyranny of influence to describe a work. Still, there are many intriguing movies where influence is apparent, but influence that is subsumed into something new. Speaking recently to Nichols, I observe that “Midnight Special” is obviously steeped in science-fiction fairytales of his formative years and flinty widescreen filmmakers, but wonder, how does that work, for a filmmaker, to say, I am influenced by this, but how do I step up and tell my own story? “Yeahhh,” he says in his Arkansas drawl, damped by hoarseness. “Nobody just wants to make something that’s pure homage, that’s boring. I found with [my previous film] ‘Mud’ being inspired by literature, inspired by Mark Twain, that felt a lot more intelligent. It’s tricky when the inspiration for your movie is another movie. It’s hard to pull that back from the breach of cliché. Kind of the way I approach it, the only way I know to approach making movies, is just to ratchet them down into reality as much as I can and think about the specifics. The specifics of what’s happening in the movie, but also the specifics of what’s happening in my life.”
Like Roy, Nichols is the father of a young son, and has spoken of transferring the anxieties of that bond to his story. “Make them really particular to the place where they’re happening, make the characters ring true for the situations they find themselves in,” he continues. “Try to be really specific. Specific in the details but also specific in the emotions. And then it’ll be my movie. Then it’ll be mine. But I also have to admit, they throw that word auteur around a lot, but it’s a fallacy, the group of people that have assembled to help me make these things, their fingerprints are on there, too, just as much as mine, my production designer, my cinematographer, my costume designer. These people have a massive esthetic impact on the films that I make and I don’t think I can state strongly enough how important they are to making these things feel like what people consider to be Jeff Nichols films. Of course, the creative structure, the narrative structure, I take credit for.”
Robert Altman repeated variations on the observation, ninety percent of my job is casting, the other ten percent is creating a good party. “That’s funny, I’ve never heard that quote,” Nichols says, “but that’s always what I’ve told people about producing. Producers are just throwing an event that they’re inviting people to, and you have to host them, you have to make sure that they have a good time, and it’s not just about making sure that actors are treated well, but it’s really about the whole team, everybody, are they given what they need to do their job appropriately? It’s very much like that.”
Showmanship on screen requiring showmanship behind the scenes. “Yep,” he agrees. “I’m a big believer that the movie you make is dictated by how you made that movie. I’m sure there are exceptions, you could have a terrible time and still turn out a good product, but that’s not really how I want to live my life and my career, y’know. Especially the more I do this, the less it becomes this kind of quick sprint, we just had to get through production and turn off my life in order just to get through it as quickly as possible. It turns into more of a marathon and you somehow have to fold your life into it.”
“Midnight Special,” on which Nichols had final cut, benefited from extended post-production, but not in the usual way. “The script was so lean. It was really a question of, well, do we need to put in a few more lines. Did I really cut this deep into the bone? The fat was already gone, I was whittling down the meat. And I started to cut into the bone. That was the question in post, all right, how dangerous is this? I think sometimes the film fails in moments and when it fails is when it’s purposefully ambiguous. That’s not what I want. Because that’s me imposing myself on the behavior of these characters and that’s not what I want. But it was a risk I was willing to take for this kind of greater experiment of narrative temperance. There’s a guy who sat alone in a room, before there were any outside pressures, and made some very intelligent decisions about why to do this or why to do that. I think you have to support that person all the way down the line. And so when people are throwing these ideas at you, change this, change that, wouldn’t it be better if the film went like this? You just have to go back to these foundational ideas and make sure that any change that you do make doesn’t betray those ideas. That’s when you get into trouble, I think. These things aren’t plug-and-play. They’re not modular, they shouldn’t be. If they’re well-written, they should have these veins that run deeply and are intertwined through these scripts, and nearly impossible to make surgery on it without hitting an artery.”
“Midnight Special” opens Friday, April 1 at Landmark Century, River East and Century 12 Evanston.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.