April 26, 2016 — Day 17: Midnight Special
I saw Midnight Special last night at what appeared to the be the only showing of the movie in the state of Wisconsin. Midnight Special is directed by Jeff Nichols, who directed two of my favorite indie movies from the last few years, Mud and Take Shelter. On the surface there is a pretty wide gulf between how these three movies are structured. Take Shelter is the story of a man dealing with schizophrenia and essentially torturing his family with his inability to come to grips with reality. He is convinced the end of the world is coming and he devotes all his time to making an underground bunker to save their lives. Mud is about a man, played by Matthew McConaughey, on the run from a crime family. Its essentially a coming of age story about two poor boys who find Mud living in the woods. Midnight Special appears to take things in a new direction as it is very much a sci-fi movie about a young boy with special powers coveted by a cult and feared by the federal government.
As much as the stories sound different from each other Nichols actually draws from a lot of the same visual elements and themes to tell these stories. Fatherhood plays a central role in his work, more-so in Midnight Special than his other work, but its there in all three movies. All three movies also center around poor people in the South caught up in events larger than them — and then struggling to overcome the massive obstacles placed in their way. Nichols seems to be very interested in the resolve and quiet pride of Southern men with a purpose. The supernatural boy in Midnight Special was raised in a Texas cult and his father had to bear watching the leader of the cult, played by Sam Shephard, raise his son. Its never explicitly addresses, but the movie implies that the father was not allowed much contact with his son after the boy was “adopted” by the cult leader. The cult owes its entire existence to the boy since he has provided them with a date and time that they believe marks their judgment day. The stakes for the boy are high, and the boy’s father simply wants to get him away from all these people looking to take advantage of him. This group eventually comes to include the federal government as well.
The plot of Midnight Special is not entirely unique, it draws on a lot of older science fiction movies thematically and visually. Its biggest influence might be Close Encounters of the Third Kind — it heavily borrows from the mysterious feeling of that movie. Midnight Special may borrow from older science fiction movies, but it melds those older sensibilities with Nichols’s enticing visual and auditory language. The camera lingers on characters’ faces to catch little tics in their motion. Little sounds are picked up that enhance the sense of dread permeating much of the movie — you can hear every strained breath from Michael Shannon or the crackle of rocks on unpaved roads under car tires. Overall, Midnight Special is well worth the viewers time thanks to this blend of old school sci-fi storytelling and modern indie thriller. If you’ve seen any Jeff Nichols movie before you are sure to like this one as well.