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Berlinale 2016 – Transcendence (on Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special)

Midnight Special (Jeff Nicholas, 2016)


There is a single shot shortly before the flamboyant ending of Midnight Special which seems to inform the worldview of the film and perhaps even that of its creator, writer/director Jeff Nichols. It is a sweeping track-shot along a road surrounded by forest on either side. At first seemingly nothing more than B-roll wide-shot filler, it seems a fleeting extravagance with the next cut mere seconds away. There are virtually no expectations for the shot other than its imminent departure and the vague possibility of an automobile entering the frame.

Slowly and without warning, the shot lifts up from off of the road and soars above the tree-line. Apparently the camera was not just rolling along on the front of a car, but swooping around in a helicopter. From this new and elevated vantage point, the image of an empty street is replaced by a sky populated by helicopters. The literal content speaks to the military trouble our characters face, but the metaphor is for a human interest in ascending to transcendence.

Setting a mysterious sci-fi thriller in the Southern U.S., Nichols brings together grandiose themes of God & Government, Angels & Aliens with the simple people of small towns. Following in the geographical footsteps of his last feature (2012’s Arkansas-set Mud), Midnight Special follows our protagonists on a trip from Texas to Louisiana to get a super-powered boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a specific set of coordinates he has provided. Although it is not understood why these coordinates or what will happen once they reach their destination, his father Roy (Michael Shannon), his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are willing to get him there at any cost. They are operating on the faith that there is something much bigger than the constraints of their own comprehension at stake. They might be simple people but they are determined and steadfast. Nichols is brimming with appreciation for these characters and indirectly reminds us that film is at its core not an elite club but a layered form ready to reward anyone willing to put in enough effort. From the well-versed translator of visual grammar to the thrill-seeking child, cinema is accessible to anyone with working eyes, ears, and thoughts. Our introduction to Alton is as a boy under a blanket wearing industrial noise-canceling headphones and swimming goggles while reading comic books by flashlight. He later does the same in the back seat of a car, and Roy remarks that the boy never would have known about comic books if not for the fact that Lucas had given him a few. Lucas retorts that “Reading is reading.” Ergo, film-going is film-going. Major productions reach mass audiences and the films most successful with both critics and general audiences are typically those which match grand thoughts with economic story-telling. That’s not to say it’s the way to make films, but it seems to be Jeff Nichols’ way. It’s a mode of production akin to a Spielberg of yore, and Midnight Special ends up bearing many similarities to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is to say it blends a sincere sense of wonder with ideas and a steadfast commitment to craft.