When coursing through grooves and turns in a car as a passenger or driver, I assume we all experience a sharper sense of the smallness of human concerns. These concerns are always there, of course. But there’s something about tunneling past hundreds, then thousands, of pavement markers that cumulatively heightens a specific kind of existential anxiety. We are barreling down this path just as others, elsewhere, barrel down their path.
Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special examines the special passengers of a specific car as they barrel through the American back lot under cover of darkness. There’s the driver, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), his friend Roy (Michael Shannon) as front passenger, and Roy’s young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in the back. We drop in on this triad mid-action, deflecting attention from local authorities as they already appear to be weathered and worn. Why does Alton wear swimming goggles? What have they done? Why go through such extremes? Nichols, as writer and director, posits these less as questions and more as situational realities, asking the audience to actively engage with the world that these people inhabit.
There are two legitimate schools of thought behind this approach. There’s the lui bai worldview, effectively asking the audience to fill in the empty spaces; to remove the passivity of watching and ask viewers to imagine the unsaid and unseen. And then there’s the sense that omission of detail does not necessarily suggest mystery or tension, but rather estranges the viewer: that ambiguity is a lazy crutch.
The problem with Midnight Special is that it straddles a line in between. The filmmaking is not lazy, but Nichols’ obligation to plot is erratic. It’s an unfortunate reality but as much as Nichols may expunge traditional plotting devices, he still remains committed to narrative cues and structure. Unlike, say, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, which has its own structured sense of spatial and narrative chaos, Midnight Special begins as a frightening and narratively threadbare exercise and then begins feeding information to its audience in overly calculated and vapid ways. It’s inconsistent.
As we bear witness to Lucas, Roy, and Alton’s journey, we become privy to the specifics of their escape, the map of their journey, and the figures that are on their trail. But Nichols remains uncommitted to establishing his characters as anything more than blank slates, their movement dictated by the structure of his plotting. Amplifying plotting without probing the intricacies of his characters results in an emotionally shallow exercise, most noticeable in the film’s false conclusion. Nichols introduces new characters, intercutting the film’s central journey with government officials pursing the coterie. It’s here where Nichols jarringly attempts to reconcile the detached emotions of his main characters with less convincing characters (most egregiously realized by Adam Driver). The constant intercutting is a tonal disaster, whereby the film at one point wants to be a pulpy Lynchian exercise until it subdued into something more glaringly sentimental, in the vein of early Spielberg. It’s not that these two ideologies are mutually exclusive (Lynch’s Straight Story embraces Spielbergian tonal cues to an extent), but that Nichols is incapable of bridging the two tonal qualities convincingly.
Structurally, Midnight Special bears similar traits to Nichols’ Take Shelter. Both films have Messiah-like figures. Both films contend with what it means to have a belief system and the fluidity of faith when confronted with crisis. And both films are primarily concerned with the fears of parenthood and facing a great unknown. But the tension derived from Take Shelter is invested in defined characters and Nichols refusal to give easy answers. As a character in Take Shelter stops his car on the highway to stare down an encroaching storm, his wife in the car concerned over the visions he has experienced, the viewer is tangibly united in the concerns of these characters as they attempt to contend with matrimony and parenthood the best they can.
But that emotional palpability is missing in Midnight Special. To Nichols’ credit, he generates an eerie anxiety through his omission of detail in much of the first half of the film, where his triptych course through the open road. But he overwrites and overelaborates. There are different complexions added to the picture that don’t jibe with what he initially constructs. By no means a failure – this is likely to be Nichols’ most commercially accessible film – it’s still frustrating to see a writer/director who had such a hand in composing films with richly developed characters come up short.