It’s really a shame Jeff Nichols got bounced in the second round of the Filmspotting Madness directors bracket. Unlike the NCAA tournament, where success is tangible and stats-driven, there is no one way to account for which director is better than the other. Everyone voter is left to his or her own interpretation and taste. The one I’ve used is based on what the Filmspotting guys have put forth: you’re standing in a theater lobby and two films are showing, one from each director. You choose one and the other director’s disappears, his future career extinguished.
Mad love to Scorsese, who gave us Raging Bull and Taxi Driver among other greats, but I’m going with Jeff Nichols. If a sadistic, crisis-inducing challenge like Filmspotting Madness is about the present and future of a director’s work—and to me it is—then I believe myself compelled to choose Nichols, whose small but undeniably strong oeuvre gives me great hope for his future over Scorsese’s, whose will be a lot shorter and less reliably compelling.
So it seems fitting I had the choice this weekend of seeing either Everybody Wants Some!!, the latest from Richard Linklater (another Filmspotting Madness erstwhile contender) and Midnight Special, the latest from Jeff Nichols. A huge fan of Linklater, I knew I’d see Everybody eventually, but I knew I had to see Midnight Special, simply because of Nichols’ name and the little I knew about the film. That’s as good a test as any.
As is often the case Matt Zoller Seitz was spot-on about Midnight Special. He expresses a sort of baffled delight that a movie like this could exist amidst so many other deafening superhero smash fests. Its “marvelous energy” propels its quickly sketched but deeply felt characters through a story that’s as lovingly familiar as it is unique. A boy with otherworldly powers, his loyal father (Michael Shannon) who supposedly kidnapped him from his former apocalyptic cult, and the government agents trying to find him all are in pursuit toward a mysterious yet significant destination.
The first act is something else. Tense, bold, determined. We’re dropped in media res and trusted to keep up. Kudos to Nichols for this choice in structure, but also (I’m assuming) for fighting studio execs to have to preserve it against some origin story filler. The power is in the mystery, in the putting together of the pieces as they’re given.
The film slackens as it goes, however, especially in the scenes that take us away from the boy and his escorts, who have a kind of enraptured determination you could imagine the apostle Paul feeling after seeing the light on the road to Damascus. Nichols seems very aware of that story, given the righteousness he’s imbued in these characters and the mission they’re on. I stayed with the movie throughout, though, because how could I not? From idea to execution, Midnight Special is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters.
Nichols couldn’t have found a better muse/avatar than Michael Shannon, whose quiet, self-assured, and focused presence has for me become inseparable from the Nichols films he’s been in, which is all of them. (Shotgun Stories remains his best—find it if you can.) And he’ll be in Loving, Nichols’ next film, coming out this November. Not sure if I’ll have to pick between two great directors again to see it, but he’s got good odds if I do.