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Berlin Reviews: Jeff Nichols’ ‘Midnight Special’ Grabs for Spielberg’s Crown

Berlin Reviews: Jeff Nichols' 'Midnight Special' Grabs for Spielberg's Crown

Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” has been an intriguing question mark on the release schedule for many months: Was the director of “Mud” and “Take Shelter” really making a superhero movie? And why were details about what, to all appearances, seemed like an attempt at a commercial breakthrough so hard to come by? Even as the movie’s March 18 release date neared, we remained largely in the dark about anything beyond its cast — Nichols standby Michael Shannon, plus Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, and “St. Vincent’s” Jaeden Lieberher — and the sense that it might involve some vaguely science-fictional aspects.

The first reviews of “Midnight Special” are now surfacing following its world premiere at the Berlin film festival, and they make matters somewhat clearer — although not by much. Part of that is critics exercising caution, trying to preserve a plot most suggest is better discovered at the movie’s pace rather than summed up in a cursory logline. But it’s also because the movie doesn’t stop to explain itself, at least until a CGI-heavy climax that those who’ve seen the film are widely divided on.

One thing “Midnight Special’s” positive and negative notices — and so far, the field is split between the two — have in common is copious references to Steven Spielberg, with a side of John Carpenter’s “Starman.” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was an explicit touchstone for Nicholas, and might serve to remind people just how surprising and how rooted in everyday Middle American life that movie is before it ends up on a butte in the New Mexican desert. Several critics use “Close Encounters” as a measure of how fall “Midnight Special” falls short, as an indicator of Nichols’ failure to blend the quotidian detail of his earlier “dust films” with the sweeping concerns of a bigger-budget genre film. And Warner Bros.’ treatment of the movie certainly suggests, at least from their POV, that Nichols has failed to break through to another commercial level. But those failed breakthroughs often produce some of the most interesting movies, and even the negative reviews make “Midnight Special” sound like something we need to see to believe.

Reviews of “Midnight Special”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

In his fourth feature, “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols pays transporting homage to the rich tradition, spanning the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, of intelligent sci-fi emotionally grounded in relatable human dynamics. There’s an explicit nod, in particular, to John Carpenter’s “Starman,” echoed even in the enveloping mood of David Wingo’s driving electronic score. But this suspenseful, beautifully acted supernatural thriller is also very much of a piece with Nichols’ overarching thematic concerns and stylistic approach, with notably strong links to another riveting study in fatherhood, family and home, “Take Shelter.” And like that film, it’s built around a performance of formidable gravitas from Michael Shannon. “Midnight Special” confirms Nichols’ uncommon knack for breathing dramatic integrity and emotional depth into genre material. The film also benefits from the formal elegance of its two-act structure, the first part unfolding mainly in the secrecy of night, and the second in the glaring vulnerability of daylight.

Tim Robey, Telegraph

It’s typical of this director’s withholding style that at one stage we’re fully expecting to hear a gunshot ring out against a nocturnal panorama of city lights, but do not. Without a telltale mobile phone in sight, “Midnight Special” also conceals for a long time that it’s even set in the present day, restoring the textures of 1970s and 1980s Spielbergiana with beautifully simple images, such as Alton reading comic-books by torchlight on the car’s back seat, or a classroom turned into a makeshift interrogation HQ. Perhaps such a marked fondness for JJ Abrams-style horizontal lens flares is a little on the mannered side, and Nichols might have pushed the paranoia more intently; his precious pauses can get laboured. But it’s remarkable how well he marshals this cast, painting nuance in with their faces and voices, conjuring feeling you didn’t know was on the cards.

Fionnuala Halligan, Screen Daily

As director and screenwriter, Nichols has stripped out much of the exposition in his thriller – along with daylight – in its early, tense stretches. The viewer is, literally, in the dark, scrabbling to piece information together from multiple strands. A laser-like light which flows from the hunted boy’s eyes is “Midnight Special’s” only, stunning, brightness, and clue to what may come. When the characters finally emerge from grubby motel rooms to the bright world and beyond, it provokes an almost visceral response (with credit to “Minority Report’s” visual creator Alex McDowell). Nichols’ imagery bristles, long before impressive effects shots are introduced. Sequences of Roy and Lucas driving at night are potent, daybreak comes to further unsettle. “Midnight Special,” named after the Lead Belly song, is, clearly a tough film for Nichols to sustain. Armed with great performances from Shannon but also from Joel Edgerton as a steady ballast and a convincing Kirsten Dunst as the mother who can’t quite shake off The Ranch, Nicholls aims high with this film. As with all its cinematic precedents, there’s a race to a destination, many people involved, and at times the going can be uneven. The payoff, though, is worth it.

Peter Debruge, Variety

Opening with a child abduction and ending with a spectacular sci-fi finale on par with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the Bible Belt-spanning “Midnight Special” demonstrates once and for all that indie auteur Jeff Nichols is now the go-to storyteller for the kind of slow-burn supernatural thrill audiences once sought from M. Night Shyamalan — that is, before the “Sixth Sense” director went off the deep end with “Lady in the Water.” Serving up hefty human insight in place of third-act gimmickry, and reuniting him with “Take Shelter” star Michael Shannon, Nichols’ impressively restrained yet limitlessly imaginative fourth feature takes its energy from an ensemble of characters who hold fast to their convictions, even though their beliefs remain shrouded in mystery for much of the journey.

Benjamin Lee, Guardian

The story about the boy with magical powers is treated with the same self-serious tone as Nichols’s other films, more grounded dramas that required such direction. There’s an absence of fun here, and for what is ultimately a chase movie, a severe lack of pace. Nichols doesn’t feel like a strong match for the genre or for the very specific type of fantasy movie he wants to make. By the time we reach the ending, the emotional connection still hasn’t been made and given the tear-jerking finales of the films that “Midnight Special” is so clearly modeled after, it’s a major problem. While some ambitious visuals impress, there’s no heart behind them – and that’s something Spielberg would never have allowed.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Structured as a low-key chase movie, unfolding with the dark urgency of a conspiracy thriller, living mostly not in your heart or even your mind but in the hairs on the back of your neck, “Midnight Special” actually emerges most resonantly as an almost mournful ode, or maybe a psalm, to the primal instincts of fatherhood. It is very recognizably the same spare, intelligent style that made “Take Shelter” so compelling and that created in “Mud” a story that meant so much more than the things that happened within it. But this sense that the film has been sculpted out of a much larger whole, with everything extraneous removed, does mean that when we come across a moment of cliche, or of excessive exposition, it almost tangibly jars. Sinister minister Meyer leaning back with a leer and telling the FBI man, “You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” or an overfamiliar sequence of passersby looking to the skies in amazement or a CGI-heavy end sequence that feels instantly dated even though it most obviously refers to movies released in the past couple of years: these passages seem to come from a different, more generic, more obvious film.

Demetrios Matheou, Thompson on Hollywood

Nichols has cited “Starman” as an influence, and with his film’s determined pacing, sombre tone and atmospheric, pulsing electronic soundtrack (courtesy of David Wingo), Carpenter is certainly evoked throughout. But I also couldn’t help thinking of the parallel journeys of an Everyman and government forces towards a decisive rendezvous in “Close Encounters of The Third Kind” (whose main character was also a Roy) or of the childlike alien of “ET.” At the same time, this very much feels like a Nichols film. As writer/director of four features now, including “Shotgun Stories,” he’s proving to be one of those chameleon auteurs who will skillfully skip between genres while investigating a central theme, in his case the family bond — for good and ill, and usually in crisis. And whatever each one’s dominant hue, there’s a shared tone that is wholly distinctive.

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