In Focus: Midnight Special Director, Jeff Nichols

August 26, 2016
With Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special released on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital this week, we run the rule over the writer/director’s cinematic body of work.

jeffnichols_shotgunstories1SHOTGUN STORIES (2007) The neo-western has experienced something of a revival in recent years, with quasi entries such as No Country For Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Mystery Road, Red Hill and the upcoming Hell Or High Water giving the formerly dusty and outdated western genre a fresh, contemporary spin, making it both cool and credible once more. Writer/director, Jeff Nichols’ low budget debut feature – the truly remarkable Shotgun Stories – kinda sorta sits within this bracket. “The first image that I had was a character with buckshot pellets grown over in his back,” Nichols told Indiewire. “I thought that people could be talking about how this character had been shot, but no one would really know the truth. I wanted to take the theme of revenge and the story structure that typically supports it and re-examine it.” While it might sound like the latest offering in the “rappers in the ghetto make movies about how they’re rappers in the ghetto” genre, Shotgun Stories is an intelligent, thought-provoking, slow burning tale of revenge, set in the “gun belt” of Middle America. Cursed with a father (Lynnsee Provence) who cares so little about his sons that he names them Bay (Douglas Ligon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Son (the great Michael Shannon, an eventual Oscar nominee for Revolutionary Road, and now Nichols’ regular go-to actor), the men of Shotgun Stories bear scars, both physical and emotional, and it’s both gruelling and fascinating to watch their internal agonies bubble out into the external world. The death of their truly horrible patriarch is the catalyst, and what follows is both a pain and a pleasure to watch. John Wayne must be looking down from Cowboy Heaven with a bemused grin on his grizzled face: the western is back, but it looks and feels very, very different. Kate Gordon

005TAKE SHELTER (2011) As is well documented, Michael Shannon has now emerged as a truly exciting and idiosyncratic American performer. A character actor in the vein of seventies giants, John Cazale and Christopher Walken, Shannon frequently upstages less interesting performers with his intimidating looks and sporadic speech patterns. His Walken-like intensity has served him well in Jeff Nichols’ films, with the director one of the few to gift him with lead roles. In Take Shelter, Shannon masterfully plays Curtis, who is seemingly living The American Dream: he has a beautiful wife (Jessica Chastain), a lovely daughter (Tova Stewart), a stable job, and respected status within his community. But Curtis is plagued by violent and apocalyptic nightmares – in which his loved ones attack him – disrupting his tranquil existence. The role of Curtis had superficial similarities to Shannon’s previous performances, like the paranoid ex-soldier of Bug and the fanatical saviour of World Trade Center. Shannon is too good, however, to give an unoriginal performance, and finds new insights within Curtis’ paranoia. The actor captures an intelligence and self-criticism even in the midst of Curtis’ deepest psychosis: Shannon movingly sketches the pain of a man struggling to return to normalcy for the sake of his family, an anxiety which is powerfully evident in later scenes. With Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols fashioned an unsettling family drama. He combines a variety of film styles, which contrast to represent the growing instability within Curtis’ mind. Richard Yates-like scenes of suburbia eventually surrender to intense and horror-film style nightmares, as Take Shelter builds towards a satisfyingly ambiguous resolution. Edgy, poignant and multi-dimensional, Take Shelter taps into psychological and spiritual questions about the role of the father in a post-nuclear family environment, offering another top turn from the increasingly fascinating Shannon, and a typically idiosyncratic sophomore effort from Jeff Nichols. Andrew Moraitis

still-of-matthew-mcconaughey-and-jeff-nichols-in-mud-(2012)MUD (2012) “If you’re going to steal stuff, then you should steal stuff from somebody really intelligent,” Jeff Nichols grinned to FilmInk in 2012, “and I stole things from Mark Twain.” The then 33-year-old director was talking about his third film, Mud. “There’s a scene in Tom Sawyer where Tom swims out into the middle of The Mississippi River and takes a nap on a sandbar. I read that in eighth grade English class, and I could never get it out of my head.” Similarly, Nichols’ film tells of two Arkansas teenagers, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, first seen in Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who venture to a remote island on the Mississippi. In one of several nods to Twain, the boys find a boot-print, complete with identifying cross shape (recalling the shoe worn by Huck Finn’s father). It belongs to Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive living in a boat that just happens to be stranded in the branches of a tree. With the story seen through the eyes of the boys – particularly Ellis – Mud recruits his new friends to make contact with his on-off paramour, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and make good their escape. But the course of true love has never run smoothly. “In love, we get banged up and bruised, but we always put ourselves back together, and we go after it again,” Nichols says. “That felt like something worth talking about.” Mud also wonderfully depicts the contemporary South as “a dying way of life.” What with everything from accents to buildings becoming homogenised, Arkansas-born Nichols was keen “to capture a snapshot of a place that probably won’t be there one day.” He even shot the film in anamorphic widescreen – the aspect ratio usually reserved for Lawrence Of Arabia-like vistas. “A small town isn’t small,” he argues. “It’s epic and sweeping.” James Mottram

midnight-special-jeff-nichols-michael-shannon.0MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016) In a quiet but ominous opening, we witness two men, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), escorting a young boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), out of their hotel room under the cover of darkness. We later learn that Alton, who is burdened with mystical powers, is Roy’s son, and the pair are fleeing from the cult that they used to belong to. Said cult bases its beliefs on the things that Alton says when he’s “speaking in tongues.” Meanwhile, the government want the trio because Alton’s “teachings” also happen to disclose official secrets. As Nichols expertly guides the film towards its conclusion, he brings more elements of the story to the table, never promising to truly explain everything that you’re about to see. It’s a bold move, and Midnight Special’s ending is likely to leave some in the audience feeling cheated by its lack of finality. However, to pull at the threads of the end means that you miss the story as a whole. This is an emotive piece of sci-fi that at times feels like an allegory for the difficult decisions we make as a family, and the acceptance that we must have when we do. Alton’s otherworldly condition is shown to have the potential to kill him, but once his father, and later mother (Kirsten Dunst), decide what’s best for him, they’re basically undermined by religion and the government who seemingly know better. Perhaps this is over-analysing a film about a boy that can shoot lights from his eyes, but the film is so typically rich in depth that Jeff Nichols practically invites you to walk away with your own interpretations…Midnight Special will be damned if it’s going to explain everything to you. “The viewer may not get everything, and I, as a filmmaker, have to accept the consequences of that,” Nichols told Film Comment. “But hopefully there are other experiences that you might get as a result of this storytelling style. You might have a deeper experience with the film as a result of it.” John Noonan

Midnight Special is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.

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