“Sometimes,” a character opines partway through Jeff Nichols’ new film, Midnight Special, “we’re asked to do things that are beyond us.” In the speaker’s case, those “things” entail activities including, but not limited to, stalking, interrogating and possibly murdering people. For the film’s audience, on the other hand, the only “thing” they must do is endure a Nichols movie, which in this case is a task easier said than done. Nichols is a fine filmmaker (Mud, Take Shelter) who has somehow been elevated to master status by his advocates. He doesn’t make bad movies, and he doesn’t make great movies. Instead, he makes movies that challenge, or outright mock, his viewers’ patience. They are Tough Mudder races made celluloid.
Midnight Special isn’t quite as bad as all that sounds, but it does demand one imbibe a couple mugs of coffee before watching. The film is a grind made hollow by a distinct lack of substance and a dearth of sentimental currency. Nichols shoots himself in the foot early on within the film’s opening minutes with a blatant evocation of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., a movie that either works or doesn’t for audiences based on the strength of its emotional resonance. That film gave us human beings, and other life forms, to care about. It also knew how to court our empathy, even if its methods for doing so were arguably of the cheap, cloying persuasion (though that depends entirely on who you ask).
By contrast, Midnight Special gives us only outlines of human beings, and makes very little effort to appeal to his viewers’ better natures. You get the sense that in penning the film’s script, Nichols pinned too much hope on his leads—Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst—to fill in the gaps of his writing and breathe life into their roles, but that’s a Herculean feat even for an assembly this talented. Shannon plays Roy, while Edgerton plays Lucas. They’re outlaws on the run from authority figures both governmental and spiritual, neither of whom are interested in Roy or in Lucas: They’re instead fixated on Alton (Lieberher), Roy’s son, who we know is “special” in an otherworldly way from the minute Nichols introduces him to us.
Roy and Lucas hide Alton in cheap motel rooms whose windows they barricade with cardboard to keep him out of the sunlight. Something is up with the boy, that much is obvious, but we just don’t know what. We only know that whatever Alton’s dealing with, it’s enough of a deal that a religious cult, headed by Sam Shepard, and the FBI want to get their hands on him. It’s staple science fiction stuff, but staples aren’t what drag Midnight Special down. Half the film’s problem is that it’s bland—visually, narratively, thematically—as a bowl of oatmeal. The other half is that it plays too damn coy for its own good. Restraint is one thing. In the right dosage, it can even be the best thing, a healthy, vital, necessary part of filmmaking that prevents directors from making the grave mistake of insulting their patrons.
But Midnight Special holds far too much in reserve where it counts. Its minimalism comes off as gelid rather than as an essential tool for deploying story. Roy and Lucas both remain more or less unknowns, though Lucas, at least, is given a big moment of master class exposition that tells us succinctly everything we need to know about him and his connection to Roy and to Alton. Roy, conversely, never winds up amounting to much more than his own name and his protective paternal instincts. In theory, those instincts might be enough to take the character as far as he needs to go: Midnight Special is, after all, a film about fatherhood, or parenthood really, as Dunst shows up eventually as a balancing feminine force in the surrogate family Nichols cobbles together from Shannon, Edgerton and Lieberher. But it is only meaningfully about parenthood in fits and spurts, or when it’s convenient, or when there’s less than nothing happening on the screen.
Nichols is obviously aiming for Spielberg, not just E.T. but Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He lands somewhere in the vicinity of Tomorrowland. Like Brad Bird’s film, Midnight Special is an exercise in retro throwback appreciation. Also like Bird’s film, it isn’t very good at it. It would be the height of cultural gatekeeping snobbery to accuse Nichols of lacking due reverence for the style and sensibility he’s mimicking. Pointing out that he isn’t a very good mimic, on the other hand, is totally fair game. In a vacuum, it doesn’t matter that Midnight Special isn’t a Spielberg movie, but Nichols has built his film on a dispassionate foundation of naked homage to Amblin, plus Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. (While on the road with Roy and Lucas, Alton is seen reading a Superman comic, which is about as on the nose as a nod can get in this kind of film.) By consequence, his failure to live up to his inspirations winds up hamstringing the attempts at referentialism.
If anything keeps Midnight Special together, it’s his cast, especially Edgerton, whose likability and charm is a far cry from his abominable turn in Black Mass, and Shannon, who towers physically and dramatically over the proceedings while emoting through his jaw line. (Adam Driver, on the other hand, shows up as a generic Bureau science dork, and he can’t go four seconds without reminding us he’s Adam f’ing Driver.) But they are acting in service to the emptiest kind of nostalgia. Sometimes we’re asked to do things that are beyond us. Too bad for Nichols that glorifying his own influences proves beyond him.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
Release Date: March 18, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.