Ask your average director to rattle off his or her favorite movies, and you'll end up with a few acknowledged classics: Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Godfather. But at a recent discussion of his latest movie, Midnight Special, director Jeff Nichols singled out an entirely different movie for special praise: 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl — thought not for the reason you might expect.
"We walked into the theater, and we were late, and the movie was playing," recalls Nichols. "And we were like, 'Aw, man, we missed the trailers.' And I didn't realize until five or 10 minutes in that we'd actually gone into the wrong theater, and this was like, the last 20 minutes of the movie. And I thought: 'This movie is extraordinary! This is the best storytelling I've ever seen in my life! I know exactly what's going on, I know who that is, I know who that is — this is great!'"
"And then the credits rolled. And I was just… 'Aw, man.' It was the best 20-minute movie I have ever seen."
It's this kind of storytelling — throw audiences into the middle of a complicated situation, and trust them both to keep up and care — that has distinguished Nichols as one of Hollywood's most intriguing young directors. His 2007 debut feature, the southern revenge thriller Shotgun Stories, was almost universally acclaimed. His subsequent features, 2011's Take Shelter and 2013's Mud, were even more rhapsodically received. His fifth feature, Loving — a period drama based on the true story of an interracial couple sentenced to jail for getting married — will arrive later this year, and is clearly being positioned for an Oscar campaign.
And then there's Midnight Special. On paper, this is easily his most accessible movie yet: a self-described "sci-fi chase movie" centered on an adolescent boy (Jaeden Lieberher) with inexplicable and apparently supernatural powers. As the film begins, the boy's father (Michael Shannon) is desperately attempting to outrun two similarly formidable forces on his trail: an FLDS-style cult, which treats his son as a kind of messianic figure, and a government task force desperate to figure out the origins of the boy's powers (led by Adam Driver, whose previous sci-fi thriller was a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
But even with Kylo Ren himself in a key supporting role, Midnight Special could hardly feel less like the expensive, bombastic blockbusters that have largely come to dominate the genre. For a modern sci-fi action/thriller, the $20 million budget is absurdly thrifty. The cast is full of tremendous actors — Shannon, Driver, Joel Edgerton, and Kirsten Dunst — without a bona fide A-list star. And the film is set far away from the major cities on either coast, as Shannon and his son leave rural Texas and drive eastbound in an attempt to reach southern Florida.
So if Midnight Special sounds like a throwback to a bygone era in Hollywood filmmaking, that's by design. When asked about his influences, Nichols cites movies like Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which use the genre trappings of sci-fi as a means to explore some deeply human concerns. His goal with Midnight Special is to make the audience feel the same way he felt when he watched those movies as a child: "A sense of mystery that builds to a sense of awe."
"I'm a kid of the 80s, you know? I was born in '78, and I grew up in Arkansas. We didn't have auteur filmmaking. We didn't have foreign films, really. I just went to the movies. And the experience of going to the movies was going to see these types of films. And you kind of watch them twice in your life. You watch them once as a kid, where you're just kind of wrapped up in what's happening on the screen. And you go back later, after film school or whatever, and you realize how masterful they are. I think Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the most masterfully directed films I've ever seen. And I know everyone speaks about the aliens, and the light, and everything else. But if you look at the suburb scenes at the beginning of the film — like Richard Dreyfuss' house — those are some of the most realistic depictions of American suburb life that I've ever seen."
Yes, Midnight Special is most easily summarized as "a sci-fi chase movie" — but at its core, the film is a story about a father and a son. Nichols himself says the film was inspired by the birth of his own child, and his attempt to process the responsibility of fatherhood in the context of our current cultural and political climate. "The real part of the stories, that matter, come from my life," he says. "My hope is that by kind of wrapping all these personal experiences into a genre, that people will actually see them."