Things have gotten a little cluttered with The Anticipated. There have been a lot of films grouped together at the beginning of the year so I have had to prioritize which ones to see and talk about, so the order of release for these might be a bit wonky (especially Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, which I will likely have to watch later in the year when its gets a VOD or Blu-Ray release). So how to go forward? Well, with all the hubbub about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this seemed like a perfect time to look in a much smaller direction. Writer and director Jeff Nichols is a unique breed in Hollywood. Not in that he’s solely a writer/director, because lots of people do that, but because he seems completely unwilling to go down the path that Hollywood has decided directors should go. Hollywood has become increasingly enamored with the idea of getting rather new directors to take over the industries biggest properties. There used to be more of a growing process as directors made multiple smaller movies that increased in size and scope before getting a truly big break (sure, there were exceptions, but there always are). Today, Hollywood has become so obsessed with finding the next big thing that a director really only has to make one critical and/or financially successful or film before there is a real chance they might get a huge break–a practice partially driven by studio desires to avoid paying huge director salaries.
Whether this new way is good or bad remains to be seen. Sometimes you get someone like Gareth Edwards or Ryan Coogler, who both seem well on their way to being great, while other times you get Josh Trank, who may never get a big budget film again after the debacle that was the latest Fantastic Four. Then there are people like Marc Webb (the new Spidermans were a mess, but still somewhat successful), Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World may have not been good, but dear God did it make a lot of money), and even Rian Johnson, who the jury is still out on (Looper is amazing, but that doesn’t really count as a huge tentpole movie, so he can’t really move in either direction until we see what he actually does with Star Wars: Episode VIII).
Before this line of thinking goes too far, let’s just bring it back to Jeff Nichols, who by all accounts could join the previously named people on this list if he wanted to. Nichols has made critically successful movies again and again with Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, and could easily use these to propel him to a huge project; but instead his commitment to only doing his own ideas (until recently–his next film will be based on the couple involved in Loving v. Virginia) meant that his next project instead was today’s The Anticipated selection, Midnight Special. Was this small-scale “boy with powers” story able to deliver, or did Nichols finally tackle a story he wasn’t quite adept at handling? Let’s finally get moving, and find out.
No real spoilers ahead because that would require a movie to have a plot that can be spoiled
Midnight Special (March 18th, 2016)
How was it?
Really good, but man, Jeff Nichols wasn’t kidding with his statement that plot is overrated, which is probably one of the most true and not true statements in existence. If a film becomes too bogged down by plot it can get overwhelmed and lack any real emotional punch, becoming a movie more concerned with moving the story along than having any emotional impact–like, let’s say, Green Lantern, which was basically Plot Exposition: The Movie. At the same time, plot is kind of necessary in order for the audience to have any idea what the hell is going on. This is a problem that plagues most of the Transformers movies at some level, for instance. So directors have to be really careful about how little plot they actually use. Well, most directors, because Nichols clearly gives no fucks. I am not saying that this film has no plot, but the plot here really is besides the point. This is a film about family and spirituality, and the plot only exists to give this film some narrative momentum.
This is the story of Roy (Michael Shannon) doing whatever he can to protect and help his more or less super-powered son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), along with the help of his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Everything else is just noise. Much like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Tree of Life, Midnight Special is about the emotions you feel while watching this movie onscreen. For parents, it’s about connecting to the feeling of doing whatever its takes to protect their children. For people without children, it is about finding something you can believe in that is worth protecting. This film wants you to think about your life on spiritual level, and decide what such belief could or should mean to you.
Now what I am basically describing here is some of the highest level of pretension imaginable, and honestly this film is rather pretentious at face value. Luckily, though, Nichols is mostly prepared for this, and in effort to counter that he keeps the film as grounded as possible. I have already said this is a film about family, and Nichols is constantly aware of making sure this film could appeal to as many people as possible while still telling the story he had in mind. The other thing that makes the film work is that Nichols is working with Michael Shannon, who is one of the greatest actors alive. Shannon has been a part of all of Nichols’s movies, and the rapport the two have is clear on screen. He brings an intensity to this role that allows the movie to take advantage of its greatest strength– silence. (Well, moments without dialogue, anyway.)
There is a moment near the end of the film when Roy, Alton, and Sarah share an embrace. The exact reasons for the embrace are not really that important, but the power of the embrace is staggering. This is a family that has long been torn apart, and now they get to share a moment, however briefly, that is just for themselves and no one else. They do not speak, and the camera cuts to a wider shot and just stays on the group as the score plays for a while. Nichols found a moment of raw emotion and shows it to the audience, inviting them to see a private moment that they almost shouldn’t be allowed to watch. The skill and handling required to make such a scene work is immense, and Nichols does it effortlessly. In this film, he consistently showcases real people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, and man, do his actors act the hell out of it.
As good as many of the moments in this film are, the nagging problem still remains that Nichols’ distaste for plotting makes the film strain at times. There is nothing wrong with a film moving slowly, but there are times in this movie when you feel like nothing is happening at all, and it really causes the middle of the film’s pacing to lag a bit. More importantly, though, the film ends with so many questions left unanswered and with so much unsettled. Most of that is fine, honestly, because the core issue of the film is actually answered and handled quite well; but it could be easy for people to feel underwhelmed by the messy nature of the ending. I thought it worked well, because life is messy, and a movie like this wouldn’t feel right if it tied up everything in a perfect bow. But there are still storylines that felt like they were dropped too soon–especially that of the cult that forms around Alton’s powers. The cult is a powerful symbol for what is best and worst about religion. On the one hand, this is a group of people that found meaning in Alton and came together to work as one towards a common goal, but on the other hand, this group specifically allowed its worship to become perverted and cult-like until they were a danger to both themselves and Alton. But the film never really properly resolves the cult’s storyline. Nichols might argue that the cult’s purpose in the film was to introduce its elements of spirituality and religion for the audience to think about, and so after it served that purpose it was no longer necessary. But to me, like a lot of other parts of the film, it feels like the storyline needed more answers than the movie wanted to give.
Isn’t this based on…?
Nothing, completely original because Jeff Nichols always does that.
Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
Hmm, probably. Much of what interested me about this film was to see whether a small scale story with magic or super powers could still play in this day and age of superhero overload. The powers in this movie are at such small scale in comparison to what we as an audience have become accustomed to, and it is a really quiet movie that moves at a very different pace from the current frenetic super hero movies (or if we are being honest, popular movies in general, as last year was one of the loudest years for movies both critically and commercially in quite some time). In the hands of someone other than Nichols, this might have been a huge hurdle to overcome, but Nichols uses the restrained nature of this movie to his advantage. The powers in this film feel huge because they are so out of sync with the subtle nature of the rest of the movie. Nichols is a master of using expectations against the audience, and does so here to build tension in unusual places. He also is able to use this to make the scale of Alton’s power gradually become more and more impressive. The effects in this movie feel a lot like Ex Machina, in that they look pretty seamless with what is happening around them. When Alton finally unleashes his powers without restraint for the first time, it is a marvel to see, and shows that a small scale movie like this can elicit a sense of wonder that even bigger movies can have trouble evoking because they are so concerned with looking as cool and slick as possible. This film definitely proves it has a place in the current Hollywood culture, and might open the door to Hollywood being willing to tell some smaller scale super hero stories again that are primarily concerned with character and the sense of amazement about what having powers truly means.
This film also marked Nichols taking a step up in scope as he continues his own unique path in Hollywood (or, well, Austin in his case), a journey I’m very interested in following. Nichols continued to show a level of restraint that few other directors show in their films. At this point each movie he makes seems emboldened to tell as much as possible without overtly stating anything. Nichols is unique in a industry that seems obsessed with stamping out originality and restraint. Somehow this film aimed high while still staying grounded, and showed the kind of things you can do with actors when you give them a chance to play real people. The critical success of this movie has been quite high. Financial success would also be nice, but Nichols is so unconcerned with how commercial his movies are that it’s hard to judge what should be considered a success. The film has had a very limited release up to this point (five theatres in the whole country), so while it has a great per screen average, there is only so much money it can actually make at this point. Starting April 1st it will be getting a wider release (to more like 58 theatres), so we’ll see if that translates to the kind of modestly successful box office run that will continue to prove Nichols can be trusted with bigger and bigger budgets. If the pattern holds true, and Nichols ever wants to make something with a big budget, he will be able to on his terms.
Would I recommend it to others?
Yes, as long as you are prepared to watch a film that isn’t like most other movies today. So this is worth at least giving a shot for just about anyone, unless you really hate stories about magical children; in that case, even though Midnight Special is a pretty different take on the genre, this still won’t be for you. The film is earnest through and through, but does so in a way that is not grating, so it connects with you emotionally in a way that is worth seeing, especially once it is out of theatres.
How would I rate it?
The film did pretty much everything I wanted it to do in terms of reaffirming Nichols bona fides, and if nothing else provided me with a different take on the “special child” story. The film itself is a little wonky in terms of pacing, but for the handy-dandy made up Anticipation Meter, Midnight Special receives 9 eye beams of emotion out of 10, because I want there to continue to be a world in which Jeff Nichols makes movies, and this film is likely to be both a critical and hopefully at least modest box office success.
For an actual rating: this is a bit tougher, because when this film is on, it is really on, but that isn’t enough to completely overcome the weird plot issues and the way the lagging middle part of the movie affected my emotional connection to it. Considering emotion is the driving selling point of this movie, the fact that it lost me at points is a real issue. I can’t give this film a 4 star rating, but it does feel better than a normal 3.5 star movie. This puts it squarely in the somewhere between 3.5 and 4 star territory (like a lot of last year’s best movies), but its hard to determine how much the film should be docked for its issues, considering how good it is at its best. So I guess I would rate it 3.75 stars out of 4 (though it’s not quite as strong as some films I have given this rating in the past). This film is definitely worth watching, as it is an original story with great performances, a breath of fresh air in Hollywood’s current quest to tell the loudest and least original stories possible.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. Check back for the next edition, where I will go in the exact opposite direction from this week’s film with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The response to this film has been divisive, to put it in the kindest light possible. What will my response be? Find out next time, and until then, remember that tinted googles are the answer to all eye beam-related problems.