What makes a great director? It’s a question with any number of answers. Directors get most of the credit when a movie goes right and receive the blame when it goes wrong. Take “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The movie has been taken down by torch-wielding mobs of critics and fans, wildly stabbing at the charred effigy of director Zack Snyder, whom they blame for every failing. It’s easy to do a cinematic post-mortem and place blame on the director for its shortcomings. A film that does everything right is often a more difficult proposition when it comes to heaping praise on a director; however, the new film “Midnight Special” gives a salient example.
Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) is a director with a whole lot of promise—the kind of guy who seems to get it. He’s a lower-key Christopher Nolan and has a real understanding of cinema as a storytelling device. He is able to wrap his arms around the largess of the narrative. If a movie were a musical composition, Nichols would be the maestro. He knows exactly what notes need to be played, and more importantly which ones to not play.
“Midnight Special” is a real showcase of his talent. It tells a story with a familiar framework and is deep fried in nostalgia. Yet, Nichols composes something entertaining and thought-provoking and makes the material his own.
The story revolves around an 8-year-old boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who is blessed/cursed with strange abilities that garner the attention of a wack-a-doo religious sect, as well our friends in the FBI. He seems like a normal kid, except for the swim goggles he’s always wearing. His father Roy (Michael Shannon) and a childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), have kidnapped Alton and are trying to take him to a location so he may fulfill his destiny—though they have no idea what that might be.
Alton has the ability to hear nearly any radio frequency and has been listening to top-secret government chatter, something that brings the NSA and a communications analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) into the hunt. There are a number of challenges Roy, Alton and Lucas face. Chief among them: the deteriorating condition of Alton, whose powers seem to take their toll. He is unable to go out into sunlight and can only travel at night.
Nichols is a deft director who refuses to paint with a broad brush. He never forces a moment, nor does he feel the need to show the audience everything. There are no origin stories of Alton’s powers or much time spent explaining the series of irrational events that have brought the characters to this place. We meet Roy, Lucas and Alton at the most interesting part of their story—and the movie ends once their mission is complete. Nichols only allows a few moments at the end to let us know what has happened to our main characters, but even then, it is just the slightest fragment of what their future holds.
I also have to commend an exceptional cast who really bring their A-game. Michael Shannon is, as always, intense and engaging. Joel Edgerton is a gifted actor of remarkable range. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who played such a pathetic creep in “The Gift” last year. Adam Driver might be the most interesting young actor working today. Nichols is more than willing to turn the movie over to his cast and let them carry a moment. He exhibits very little interest in trickery, nor does he plague the movie with a heightened sense of kinetic filmmaking. Instead, he sets a frame and lets the story unfold in an organic way, centered on the characters that are populating the world he is creating.
It’s amazing to see such subtlety in a movie that feels spiritually connected to another recent piece of homage, “Super 8.” Director JJ Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) spends so much time and energy making something visually dense and forcing emotional moments. Nichols instead steps away and lets those moments happen.
I kept watching “Midnight Special” while marveling at the subtlety and how unforced it feels. I kept waiting for the Hollywood blockbuster machine to kick in and all the tropes and clichés to roll out, but it never happened.
The subject matter is similar to movies like “E.T.” or “Splash,” but on a much more reserved scale. The difference is how much more human “Midnight Special” feels. The ending isn’t some huge production. There are no heartfelt goodbyes or teary moments of manipulation. There is only the raw humanity of parents looking to protect their child and the consequences of their actions.
So, to answer the question, “What makes a good director?” seems simple when watching “Midnight Special”: A good director knows how to show audiences just enough but never too much.