Overview: A father and his son, a child with mysterious abilities, are pursued by federal agencies and a desperate religious group. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 111 minutes.
Violent Information: Each of the three Jeff Nichols films starring Michael Shannon in the lead role, including Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and now Midnight Special, jumps into a first scene cold-opening that sees a father presented with the possibility of losing his child. And each storyline then pursues the father’s coming to terms with the threat, in all cases an idea too large for one person to understand but one that the paternal characters need desperately to overcome. With the latest of these three films, Nichols has punctuated this idea with something of a religious work and perhaps incidentally finished what might be the great thematic trilogy of the 21st Century.
How many times has a great movie lent its story’s entire telling to the face of its screen performers? Arguably, that was the first film art, when we think most immediately of Rene Falconetti’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Chaplin’s hopeful, nail-biting tramp in City Lights. We might recall the way that Giulietta Masina’s Gelsomina looked at her strongman, Anthony Quinn’s Zampano, and the way Zampano did not look at her, or the way he stared at some empty non-object out of the frame. And as our cameras found new ways to express through image and technique, this old trick proved to be one with the most utility. Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps the most inventive frame-and-shot technician, has maybe the greatest portion of his legacy tied into a single image of Anthony Perkins smirking knowingly at his audience. On his current trajectory, we can be sure that the still-young Nichols has plenty of great film accomplishments ahead of him, but his eventual legacy will be permanently connected to one screen performer’s expression.
Film fans and critics have come to know, celebrate, and even humor at Michael Shannon’s established résumé of unstable characters and his performances of hair-trigger intensity and volatile psychosis. But under Nichols’ direction, Shannon’s face, the most powerful screen instrument at play in each film, is focused and vulnerable, violently confused. Or perhaps, more accurately stated, Shannon’s expression is one intensely confused by violent information. It is the story being told.
Confused Heroism: It’s important to note that in their first two films, Nichols and his go-to cinematographer Adam Stone rarely positioned Shannon as the hero of the frame. Shannon’s natural appearance is one that exhibits markers of traditional strength, either heroic or villainous: a bold chin, strong brow, broad shoulders, limbs tense and long. But in Shotgun Stories, a film in which his character Son must learn to negotiate half-formed and broken concepts of masculinity in order to survive a violent conflict for the sake of his family, Shannon is frequently pushed to the edge of the frame, his intense eyes pointed sharply at the opposite bottom corner. In Take Shelter, working class father Curtis is haunted by either prophetic or psychotic visions of apocalyptic nature, and even at his most fatherly moments, the actor is framed as susceptible to attack or catastrophe. At times, a devastating Ohio sky presses downward upon him or he is shrunk by panicked over-reaction in his own domestic space. In both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Shannon’s main fight is against an idea, and both movies are deceptively absent of violence, catastrophe, and physical struggle.
Conversely, after Midnight Special‘s subdued and dark motel set-up scene, in which a newscast plays over three nervously quiet characters to provide just enough exposition, the movie moves quickly into scenes of action atypical of Nichols’ other stories. Moments later, we see Roy (Shannon), Lucas (an exceptional Joel Edgerton), and Alton Meyer (12-year old revelation Jaeden Lieberher) flying down a remote Texas back road at night in a car with no headlights, the father here literally blind in his attempt to save his son. We see car crashes, chase sequences, gunfights – more action scenes than the first two films combined. In part because Midnight Special marks Nichols’ first determinedly genre-influenced project – the film takes a lot of narrative cues from early-80s adventure films (think Firestarter with a little bit of sermonizing) – but also because this most recent investigation of the fabric of parenthood dictates a certain degree of physical conflict, Nichols’ newest movie builds a physical framework to host Shannon’s expressive conflict with the ideological.
The rest of Midnight Special’s story holds that same sense of desperation and unease, a mix of pulse-pounding action and haunting and beautiful strangeness, while Shannon’s work never loses that element of confusion, even when that confusion is filtered into necessary leaps of faith and acts of heroism. When Alton Meyer meets investigating NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, who stands in for the viewer within the story, his rationalization of the story’s events stepping in sync with our own), the child explains coolly that there is a better world that he needs to get to. Neither we as the audience nor Roy or Paul as participants within the story have any idea what this better world might be, but we all wordlessly know that it is Roy’s job to get his son there. When Alton tells his dad that he does not have to worry, Roy replies, “I like worrying about you, Alton. That’s the deal.” And a little consideration reveals that this line could accurately be applied to any of the three Nichols/Shannon films. It can also be applied to any real-world parent/child relationship.
The Deal Trilogy: The final shot of Shotgun Stories shows Shannon’s Son sitting calmly on a porch rocking chair, reunited with his child. The ending of Take Shelter has Curtis standing timidly behind his wife, holding his daughter desperately as his catastrophic visions come to fruition. The ending of Midnight Special shows a close-in on Roy’s face as he stares into the sun with snippets of medical tape across his forehead as if medicating wounds from a thorny crown and his expression of confusion is finally replaced with a glimmer of divine serenity. In the first film, blind commitment to being the father his child needs has provided the character absolution. In the second film, it has provided confirmation. In the third, deliverance.
Shannon and Nichols have authored a trilogy about the sacred duty and holy act of parenting in the terrifying ideological moment of the 21st Century. All science is an attempt to understand and measure the energy of the universe in past, present, and future states. The world is getting necessarily better at pursuing this curiosity. Because of the evolution of our culture, the increasing accessibility of information, and the unprecedented conditions of our planet dictating drastic lifestyle changes in the near future, it often feels as though the current generation of new parents might be the first whose established way of existing offers no value to their children.
Overall: Nichols’ films exist on this historical and conceptual borderline, that boundary where the violence of our fathers’ history and the grace of our mothers’ religion are both at the mercy of our children’s improved science. Uncertainty has always been a natural element in parenting. We always want to leave a better world for our offspring. But lately, it seems increasingly likely that providing a better world in the modern age might require a near erasure of the world as it exists. We do not know what that better world might be, or where we might find it. But we have to find a way to get them there, and we have to do it with faith and love. That’s the deal.