Indie film maker Jeff Nichols’ latest mines familiar themes in the young Texas-based director’s work – namely misplaced faith, Americana and the cosmos.
As in Take Shelter, this features Michael Shannon, that brooding mountain of an actor, as a man at the mercy of powers greater than he understands. As in Mud, it features a boy, motel rooms, a blonde American star (this time Kirsten Dunst stepping in for Reece Witherspoon) shootouts and Sam Shepard.
Some of Midnight Special is just great. The start, for starters, when Joel Egerton and Shannon are on the run in their car with the boy in the back, using night goggles to drive undetected. Nichols’ feeling for the mythic landscapes and emptiness of America lends his films an unsettling quality, with his people always yearning for something to fill the void.
In this case, there’s a cult, led by Shepard, called The Ranch, who incant the boy’s utterances. We later find out these are secret government co-ordinates the strange boy can pick up like an aerial transmitter and reel off. He’s not of this world, and can talk in tongues and has to wear swimming goggles to keep out the light from his laser-beam eyes.
Yes, this is odd, Twilight Zone stuff, but Nichols makes it work, aided by Shannon’s intensity and the offbeat charm of Adam Driver playing an FBI expert, the only one in the authorities who understands the boy.
But then, my word, it all does get a bit silly. Which isn’t a word you’d associate with Jeff Nichols. But the last act is, being most generous, a stretch. Frankly, it doesn’t work and doesn’t fit with what’s come before. It’s supposed, I think, to have awe and wonder, but it just doesn’t. It has mid-budget effects and there’s nothing as ropey as those these days. Gareth Edwards just about made it work in Monsters; Spielberg got through it in Close Encounters, but it’s not for Nichols. Not to spoil it, but he can’t handle the aliens.
It’s probably a shame for him and he won’t get to do a blockbuster. But you know, that’s better news for us. He’s a great, indie storyteller of broken American dreams, and I hope he stays that way, for now.