Back in the day, I watched The Terminator for the first time with my family without knowing a single thing about the movie. When the sequel came out several years later, I remember how fun it was to see the original without any kind of context or preview – and how that would’ve been to walk the same way into T2. I bring it up because I had the same experience with Midnight Special. I just knew Nichols previous works, like Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud. Each one of them had been very compelling, thought provoking and expertly acted. So, I kind of wanted to go into Special without any knowledge of what the director had in store for me this time…
Assuming you missed Midnight Special, I really hope you do the same. I inserted the preview below for consistency’s sake below, but Special is on our “Top Ten” list for 2016 because it provided one of the best viewing surprises. I guess the point I’m making is that we have made such a phenomenon of access to behind-the-scenes and trailer releases, subsequent trailer announcements, etc, that I like talking about a film that truly lets its work speak for itself. [See our recent review on Rogue One for more on the ideas of the “film behind the film.”]
Midnight Special, at its core, is a story about the bond between a father and son. Like so many other films, I listened to the DGA/Director’s Cut podcast with director Jeff Nichols talking about the project. It turns out that his infant son suffered a seizure – non life threatening and completely recovered, thankfully. But, the incident really shook his perception of fatherhood to its core. And the idea for a film in which a father essentially struggles with potentially losing his son came to Nichols. What’s a real tribute to this director and his filmmaking team is that I watched the movie from a completely different standpoint – still with an immense effect upon me, the viewer.
Take the opening scene for context. Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton’s characters are holed up in a stinky, remote motel. And, there’s this kid who’s on the floor between the beds of the little room. It looks like he’s made a fort out of the pillows and blankets and, well.. he’s a little weird. See, he’s wearing swimming goggles and watching the TV along with the two men. Everyone’s riveted to the news story about two guys who have taken a little boy hostage. Oh, dear. It’s going to be that kind of movie?
And that’s the whole point – it is, and it isn’t. Subsequent to this scene is an entire congregation of what looks to be fanatical Christians, who are unceremoniously rounded up by the FBI. Their leader is questioned and Adam Driver is introduced as a kind of researcher for the Bureau. The FBI really wants access to this child. And on it goes, the old-school type of hunt is on. My apologies for the vagueness of this commentary, but I’m trying to pique your interest to see this film and let its story unfold organically for you.
I will say that anyone who composes a “Top Ten” list has got to consider all the elements of a film, and all those cinema tools are a reason why Special made our list. I think I’ve made clear the script is incredibly unique, not only for its plot but also its universal themes and originality in construct. The cinematography evolves beautifully between night and day, which is a real key part to the story. The editing spares no emotion and allows this crazy road tale to unfold in all its suspenseful glory. David Wingo did the score, which is notable because he collaborated with Nichols on Take Shelter and Mud as well. This partnership among others was also discussed on the DGA podcast, and seems representative of many great filmmakers even up to the likes of Scorsese and Spielberg: you see a lot of similarities and familiar names in their end credits.
In all, I wasn’t that surprised that Special wasn’t included in the Oscar noms. Perhaps it was released too early, maybe not Academy voters had access to it or the PR for the film couldn’t compete with other PR machines (to whit, La La Land). But if I was Nichols and his team, I wouldn’t be too concerned. I honestly feel that he and Denis Villeneuve are two of the most exciting directors these days – and more awards will certainly grace their careers.