Directed by Jeff Nichols (2016)
by Jaime Davis
The Fixer at Moviejawn
There's a scene in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter (2011) where Curtis (Michael Shannon) slowly walks through his living room, soaked in blue, taking everything in. At first, we catch only a glimpse of his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), her back to us as she appears to be cooking at the stove. Something about her slack posture and lack of movement suggests something is, well, off. Back to Curtis as he moodily walks through his home, and then back to Samantha, who by now is staring back at us, strangely, inexplicably dripping wet. Her expression and movements are odd, as are Shannon's: almost imperceptible, minute, dreamlike. Because this is indeed a dream. A pretty fucking creepy one, in fact. It almost feels like a scene from a horror movie, the kind they make in Japan but then remake in the U.S. to little effect. But this is not a horror movie, no, not quite.
No, it's just a Jeff Nichols film. Not "just" anything, actually. Because Nichols is a force to be reckoned with, a 100% genius person through and through. And I should come right out and say this now: his movies make me feel alive. I know that sounds ridiculous. "You need a movie to make you feel alive, Jaime? WTF." Yeah i know, weird, whatever. But it's truth. Sci-fi story and/or general creepiness + human investigation x serious intensity = Jeff Nichols. I worship at the temple of Nichols, you guys. His shit is no fucking joke.
It took me a long time to get all the way through Take Shelter. I tried a couple years ago but had to stop watching - it was much too intense for me. And then I tried again and the movie still wouldn't take. I just couldn't handle it, wasn't built for it. That scene at the Lions' Club? Nope. Curtis seizuring all over Samantha as she flails, helpless and weak? Nope. The slap scene? NOPE NOPE NOPE.
But then I watched his latest, Midnight Special, and I knew that there was a higher purpose for me. This purpose flat out demanded that I make it through Take Shelter once and for all. Because I enjoyed Nichols' second feature, Mud, so much, and fell in love with Midnight Special pretty much from minute three.
Midnight Special opens on Michael Shannon (back in action!) as Roy, on the run with his son Alton and accomplice Lucas (the forever stellar Joel Edgerton). It's night, and they're making their move. We know they're on the run because the news report on the television is telling us so. But why? And why is Alton wearing goggles? And safety headphones? And what is this cult church called The Ranch all about? And why are they sending two of their lackeys out to try and find the boy? Oh and why did the FBI just show up at The Ranch? And OMG why is Adam Driver in this? Oh, and um, how is Adam Driver so damn good in this (and everything, actually)? Whoa and Alton can do WHAT with his eyes? And his mind? Holy shit. How can he do that? What IS he? Holy shit! And where are Roy and Lucas taking him? Why is Kirsten Dunst playing his mom, Sarah? Isn't she too young? Oh I guess not? I really like Kirsten Dunst! So why did Alton do that thing where he destroyed the other thing? And what's happening to him here at the end? HOLY CHRIST WHY ARE WE SEEING ALL OF THIS? And is Adam Driver going to save them all?
Yeah, if you think I'm answering any of the above...oh man, you do, don't you? NO WAY. Sorry y'all, you're just gonna have to see it.
Midnight Special isn't entirely a perfect film - one of the friends I saw it with likened the special effects to Starman, a movie I can't recall much other than the part where The Dude shows up from outer space all naked and shit. But I get her point. Some of the special effects are indeed Starman-ish. For me, the ending shots give way too much away, in an almost Spielberg-ian way. But that's just my personal preference. I'd rather not see the thing that's been built up so much throughout the course of the feature - I'd rather just imagine it. My imagination is always 10000% better anyway. Effects and ending aside, we're still talking about a fairly small film vastly superior to the majority of blockbuster drivel released on the regular these days.
There's a part near the end of Midnight Special where Alton says to his father, "You don't have to worry about me anymore," to which Roy replies, "I like worrying about you." I don't have kids, but this one exchange perfectly sums up what I expect parenthood to feel like for me, if I'm ever lucky enough to experience it. All of Nichols' films explore shifting, tenuous dynamics between parent and child: Curtis and Samantha navigate their way through sign language and medical concerns with their hearing-impaired daughter in Take Shelter; Ellis, in Mud, endures his parents' crackling divorce and his father's eventual escape; Roy and Sarah sacrifice their son on Earth so that he can live his best life elsewhere in Midnight Special. Nichols is a first-rate examiner of protection, namely how parents lead and protect (or fail to protect) their young on this planet, despite all the absurdity, pain, and bullshit that surrounds us.
When I watch Nichols' films I see recurring themes of belief and conviction. Do we actually believe that Curtis is foretelling an impending apocalyptic storm in Take Shelter, or is he just ill? Is Mud telling the truth about what happened with Juniper, and will he really give Ellis and Neckbone that gun in exchange for their help? In Midnight Special, is Alton a God among men, a weapon, or something else? Who do we believe? Whose conviction rings most true? Nichols doesn't want you to get everything up front, doesn't want to show you what he has in store before he absolutely has to. But best believe, when the time is just right, when the intensity has built up so much that you don't want to blink, don't want to so much as breathe, he'll give it all up to you. You better be ready.