Then there are people like Jeff Nichols, an Arkansas-born auteur who, for the past decade, has written and directed some of the most memorable American independent pictures around on a shoestring budget: 2007's Shotgun Stories; 2011's apocalyptic psychological thriller Take Shelter; and the 2012 Matthew McConaughey coming-of-age drama Mud.
Midnight Special — his fourth full-length feature, and first for a major studio — marks a major shift in the acclaimed but heretofore underappreciated filmmaker's trajectory. Not only is it his most expensive film to-date ($18 to 23 million is more than double the cost of his first three films combined), but his most accessible and ambitious too.
Imagine Steven Spielberg's most sentimental sci-fi films (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) rerouted and souped-up through the eerie vision of John Carpenter and you're close to imagining the wonder and whimsy found in Nichols' latest Southern-fried picture (and future late-night staple).
Alton (St. Vincent's Jaeden Lieberher) is a boy with bizarre, special powers — including, but not limited to, emitting bursts of light from his eyes, picking up radio frequencies, and channelling all sorts of electrical items — who is broken out of a controlling commune by his biological father (Michael Shannon) and his fugitive state trooper of a friend (Joel Edgerton) after discovering that he's naturally drawn to a certain set of coordinates in the southern United States and a particular date and time. What will happen when they get there, they don't know, but the FBI (namely federal agent and code breaker Paul Sevier, played by Adam Driver) is interested, as is the cult that considers him some sort of spiritual conduit.
Why any of this is happening, or the science behind it, is never fully explained. Although no doubt frustrating to some, Nichols seems to have tapped into the fact that the best fantasies show rather than tell (think environment and emotion over exposition), and he's able to do that quite adeptly here, allowing minds to wander through the many literal portals and parallel narratives he places along the way. Nichols is more concerned with creating the perfect atmosphere — from the dead lawns in small town Texas, to Alton's piercing blue swim goggles (the same shade of which seems to outline every lens flare and electrical pulse along the way) — and that attention to detail only reinforces his care and the strength of his vision as a director.
While not as flashy as the big budget superhero spectacles currently stinking up the box office, Midnight Special offers something far more valuable: hope for the future (both in the films Nichols' is bound to create with more commercial acclaim, and the future crop of filmmakers he'll no doubt inspire). As long as Nichols is at the helm, it's hard to imagine anything less than out of this world.