The director Jeff Nichols has rather crept up on us, much like his films. He has made four of them –“Shotgun Stories” (2007), “Take Shelter” (2011), “Mud” (2012), and now “Midnight Special” – in which his themes have emerged as clearly as oncoming headlights at night. His setting is the forgotten American heartland of trailer homes and pickup trucks, gas stations and motels, beer and bad TV. His characters are blue-collar workers, the kind of people who, in Obama’s clanger of 2008, “cling to guns or religion”. In another film-maker’s world they would be dismissed as religious nuts – conspiracy cultists hoarding books about ley-lines and blacking out their windows to keep out the daylight. In Nichols’s world, the wackjobs are the heroes.
I’m trying not to tell you too much about the plot of “Midnight Special” – the movie’s sleight of hand is so subtle and light-fingered I wouldn’t want to jog it – but there’s an eight-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), with special powers who picks up the universe’s signals like a radio transmitter. At one point he starts speaking Spanish in the back of the car. His two adult companions turn on the radio: a Spanish station is playing. This gift makes him of great value to a Texas cult, who believe he brings news from the hereafter, and also the FBI, who believe he is stealing their secrets. His two companions, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgarton), are less easy to make out. They are in fact his abductors, and they seem as desperate as their mugshots on TV. But Alton is calm in their presence, and wears goggles in the back seat of the car as he reads comics by torchlight. He must be kept from the sun, so they move him around by night. Who is he? Where are they going? And what are those beams of light that stream from his eyes, as bright and blinding as welder’s sparks? In one extraordinary sequence, great balls of fire descend from the heavens onto a lonely gas station, scorching and crumpling the tarmac: the world of Edward Hopper interrupted by the world of Steven Spielberg.
It is to Spielberg that many reviewers have turned for comparison – in particular the early Spielberg of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, who dreamed of alien visitation in terms of rampaging hoovers and runaway toys – but no music plays in this sequence, which is almost silent but for the sound of the crumpling tarmac. Nichols works in a maximalist genre (sci-fi) and in a maximalist film culture, but he is a bona fide minimalist, a master of the ellipse. “Take Shelter” is maybe the sparest movie about the apocalypse you’ll ever see.
This film, too, is shaved to the bone. In one scene, a man levels a gun at another man’s head. It’s a scenario we’ve seen enough to know that the film-making world divides into two camps: those who would show the gunshot and those who would cut to the exterior of the dwelling and the muffled sound of the gunshot. Nichols does neither: he cuts on the sound of the victim’s increasingly rapid breathing and moves calmly into the next scene. No exterior. No gunshot. What more do we need than a man’s last breath?
I haven’t felt so ominous a hump in a movie – the sense of yours guts falling out from under you – since the heyday of John Carpenter. His influence can be felt in the film’s budget (a measly $18 million) and the one-fingered synth motif that jabs insistently throughout the film. The many mysteries of the plot are resolved with a terse couple of sentences of almost koan-like resonance. By this point, the film’s power rests almost entirely in the faces of those guarding the boy: a federal agent played by Adam Driver, his mother played by Kirsten Dunst and most of all Shannon, a stooped giant of an actor who has appeared in all of Nichols’s films – Richard Dreyfuss to the film-maker’s Spielberg. His towering height, mean-looking mouth and thunderous brow would normally have meant a career playing brutes. That threat is never absent. But Nichols has managed to intercept and uncover a gentle giant closer to Steinbeck’s Lennie. He is a human lantern, a guardian haunted by bad dreams, and an object lesson in the rough-hewn, sawn-off magic of Jeff Nichols: not all is as it seems.
Midnight Special out in US; UK release, April 8th