(Jeff Nichols, 2015)
Nichols' "voice" makes perfect sense here, applied to a sci-fi thriller which refers to Spielberg's sci-fi cinema of the late '70s and early '80s; like J.J. Abrams' Super 8, Midnight Special seems hugely indebted to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as John Carpernter's Starman.
The difference is that while Abrams is a skilled mimic, Nichols has his own sensibility and style. It is artier than most mainstream Hollywood cinema, patient and precise, with much attention paid to tone and mood. Visually he uses almost-Hawksian simple set-ups, eschewing flashy cutting or ostentatious angles.
Each of his films is imbued with a strong sense of emotion, perhaps at the expense of plot. So here there is no exposition, meaning that the audience is involved in an intriguing game of catch-up from the start. We meet two men, on the run from the authorities across the South of the U.S. with a little boy in tow. The boy wears swimming goggles and headphones. They travel by night, the driver wearing night-vision goggles so that their car travels in darkness. They use cardboard to blackout motel room windows in the daytime. The Government is searching for them, as is the cult they appear to have escaped. The boy is spoken of in reverent terms by cult members, and appears to have powers of some sort. One of the men (Michael Shannon) is revealed as his birth father.
Nichols lets the details come slowly, focusing instead on the mood of desperation and fear around the fugitives. This is really a story of a father's struggle to protect his child, and as such it accrues tremendous emotional power as it moves with gathering speed towards a climax. The sci-fi elements are all sudden shocks in the story, and the naturalism of the setting and playing gives them an awesome effect; a scene at a gas station is interrupted by a shower of falling satellite debris. Shannon is woken from sleep by the house being shaken off the ground by the light shooting from his sons eyes. The boys touch kills patches of grass.
While the film is without any Spielbergian sentimentality, it does try for Spielbergian awe, and the context and tone helps it achieve something like that. It is a slow burn that sparks to life impressively.
Nichols is great with actors as ever. Shannon, Edgerton and Dunst are all excellent, while Driver shows good range as the Government expert on their trail. Perhaps most impressive is the cinematography of regular Nichols collaborator, Adam Stone; he paints a muted, wintry picture of the Southern States by night, lit by halogen and headlamps.