As the eponymous character Mud says dreamily in the Jeff Nichols film Mud: “She is like a dream you don’t want to wake up from.”
This is how I feel about Jeff Nichols’ oeuvre: He creates films grounded in reality, characters bogged down by darkness that are trying, desperately, to do right, and yet there’s something hazy, surreal, even, about them that draws you in, hypnotizes.
Nichols has said in interviews (this is me paraphrasing, natch) that he does not care for weighty, unnecessary exposition. That he strives for emotion over plot. This, I think, leads to a richness and depth to his characters, which compliments the natural unfurling of his stories (with zero info dumps, I might add, to date!) he’s known for. There is plot in each of his films, absolutely, but it’s secondary to crafting very real worlds, wherever/whatever they may be, and very real characters. In the case of Midnight Special, we believe in Michael Shannon’s pain, his love for his enigmatic/alien son. When we see glimpses at the end of a world that sits atop our own, see beings made of pure light walk among us for a moment, towering, otherworldly structures twisting up and peering down at us…it’s not silly. It’s gut-wrenching and tender. Like the gobsmacked bystanders we hover over, we’re in awe, too.
I think, if pressed, I’d say Take Shelter is my favorite of Nichols’ films, but there’s something so wonderful about Midnight Special, its frenetic energy, its ability to pierce my nostalgia center while still giving me something new and startlingly unique, that makes me think I may, upon subsequent viewings, change my mind and re-order this list someday.
Look, this is everything I want a movie to be. We’re drenched with stellar performances, and even the background players—whose characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out (nor need to be), such as Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton—are lush and full of life and histories. We don’t see these histories on screen—for example, we don’t find out where Kirsten Dunst’s character has been the past couple of years—but we believe that there are stories there, events that have happened, and see this guilt and weatherdness and history in the dialog (written) and the performances (acted). And, again, there’s no unnecessary info dumps here—Do we ever really know what The Ranch is? What they were previously doing prior to Alton’s downloaded sermons? No, and it doesn’t matter)—and the film is better for it. We get what we get, when we get it, and not a moment before. And that, to me, is a strategy I wish more filmmakers/screenwriters would embrace (which The Witch also did so well): to trust in our ability to figure it out.
This is a pulpy chase film with serious heart, serious acting chops, gorgeously shot and scored, with a supernatural third act that’s incredibly moving, and I can’t stop thinking about it, can’t recommend it enough.
My score: 5 out of 5 swim goggles