In the films Take Shelter and Mud director Jeff Nichols explored themes of social anxiety caused by fear of the unknown. When I suggest that his new movie, Midnight Special, a sci fi road film about a father and a son with special powers, continues that examination he agrees, but only to a point.
“I certainly think you could make that statement and it would be fair,” he says, “but it doesn’t exactly line up with what I was thinking.
“I was thinking about what it is to be a parent. I think being a parent is to have faith in the unknown. You don’t know what your children are going to grow up to be. You don’t know what’s going to happen to them. You don’t know if they are going to make it all the way. You have to have faith in who they can be, who they are developing into. Who they are currently. I think that is what parenthood is and I think that is why there is so much fear and anxiety that comes from being a parent.”
Nichols says he originally came up with the idea for a “sci fi government chase film,” but adds, “That could be really silly so I think it is up to me as a filmmaker to apply these kind of personal feelings I have and my relationships to the locations and to the world at large to try and ground this film and give it some kind of actual purpose.”
To complete the picture Nichols cast Michael Shannon as the father. A frequent collaborator, Shannon has starred in all Nichols’s films, including the upcoming Loving.
“I think he makes me a better writer, especially in a film like Midnight Special where I’m trying to reduce the need for backstory to be delivered through monologues. When you have a person like Mike he fills all the spaces between the lines with all that subtext. He carries it on his face, in his continence. He is the complete story and he doesn’t even have to say a word.”
Midnight Special is the extraordinary kind of sci fi movie that teases out the information bit by bit. We learn enough to stay involved and are treated to several spectacular and exciting scenes along the way, but when it comes time to put a period on the story, Nichols instead uses an ellipsis in a metaphysical ending that will mean different things to different people. It owes a nod to his old hero Stephen Spielberg but feels distinctly like a Jeff Nichols film.
“If you look at ET and the bicycle flying and all these other moments that are classic moments in Spielberg films, they are wonderful. I don’t do that. For better and for worse I don’t do that. Maybe it’s because I live in the modern age and am a bit more of a pessimist. I don’t consider myself a cynic. I like films that ultimately are hopeful but there is a different kind of conclusions in my films than his films. I think my films point toward hope but don’t fully embrace it. I think that is the difference. It could also be the difference between a blockbuster and whatever this is going to be, but that is who I am as a person.”