The early bird “I was a fan of Jeff Nichols before he was famous” train is slowly starting to leave the station. I realize it’s blasphemous to his ardent fans (I consider myself one of them) to suggest that Nichols – now the director of four feature films – is still someone “new.” He’s not new, but he’s also not known to mainstream audiences. In a yet-to-be-published interview (it will be published soon!), Nichols told me he’s been “just unsuccessful enough” to still maintain control of his movies. In other words: He’s never directed a movie with such a large budget that he’d have to make any serious concessions. He stated those types of concessions are his “worst nightmare.” Now, with Midnight Special releasing March 18, let’s all hope he never has to make any dreaded concessions.
Jeff Nichols – who previously directed Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud – has a knack for just keeping his stories moving and including as little exposition as possible. Nothing takes me out of a movie more than obvious exposition. In real life, a brother doesn’t address his sister as “sis.” In real life, people do not recap their important life stories with each other every time they see each other. I’m at the point I’d just rather not know than have clunky exposition fed to me.
On Tuesday, at a lunch in honor of Midnight Special thrown by publicist Peggy Siegal, Nichols recounted a story that influenced his position on exposition. In 2003, he had bought a ticket to see Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. He was running a little late and was disappointed he’d be missing the credits, but when he walked in, he watched the most glorious sequence he’d ever seen: Characters were not explained, but he knew who everyone was and what they were supposed to be doing – and this movie moved. He loved it. It was only after 20 minutes when the credits started rolling that he realized he had walked into the wrong Pirates showing. But for those 20 minutes, it was the greatest thing he had ever seen because, in the version he saw, it didn’t explain anything.
In Midnight Special, the story starts with Michael Shannon’s Roy (Shannon has been in every Nichols film to date); Joel Edgerton’s Lucas; and a young boy, Alton, played by Jaeden Lieberher; fleeing a hotel room, getting into a car, and racing as fast as they can into the night. There’s no set-up. We don’t even know their relationship. All we know is that these three need to get out of that room and fast.
At the lunch, moderator (and Blue Valentine director) Derek Cianfrance told Nichols he had just assumed there’d be a flashback scene that filled this all in later – and admitted he was dreading that flashback scene. Nichols told the audience that that scene does exist, but only in his head. He didn’t know how to give it to the audience without it being clunky, so he skipped it. Midnight Special doesn’t stop. It’s intense from start to finish.
We learn quickly that Roy is Alton’s father and that he snatched Alton from a religious cult and is now on the run from the authorities. Alton is “special,” as we learn more and more as the movie goes along. As you might have seen in the trailer, Alton sometimes has glowing “Cyclops from the X-Men”-type eyes. But Alton is not a future superhero. And his eyes are only like that sometimes – what triggers these episodes becomes more and more clear as the film goes along… eventually adding Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, who is having a nice few months) to the group of fugitives.
(At Tuesday’s luncheon, I spoke to Dunst for a few minutes. She had filmed Midnight Special even before the second season of Fargo and said that, a year ago, she had to field non-stop, “Oh, where have you been? You haven’t been in anything in awhile”-type questions – knowing both these projects were coming down the pipe. Anyway, Dunst was in a very good mood.)
Adam Driver plays Paul, the head of a government group trying to locate Alton. But what’s nice about Driver’s character is that he’s not playing the stereotypical government asshole trying to “get Alton at any price” who doesn’t understand what he’s dealing with. Paul knows exactly what he’s dealing with and is very respectful of the whole situation. It’s just nice to see a “nice” cinematic government official for a change.
That’s as far as I’m going with the plot as to not spoil anything because the less you know, the better. (I feel like I’ve been in this situation a lot lately. I’m looking forward to writing about Richard Linklater’s wonderful Everybody Wants Some because there’s literally no plot and it is impossible to spoil.) For a movie with not much of a budget for a studio movie (at least comparatively), Midnight Special has some legitimately great-looking effects shots. There’s one in particular involving a falling satellite (this happens) that is absolutely breathtaking.
Someday Jeff Nichols will be one of those household name-type directors. (In my household, he already is. But, I digress.) It’s probably going to happen sooner rather than later. If you’ve never seen his past work, I have no idea what you’re waiting for. Midnight Special isn’t an “easy” movie, but it really never gives you the time to think it over too much until it’s over… it’s almost a meditation of a thrill ride and Jeff Nichols is one of the few directors who can pull such a thing off.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.