The (Alien) Children Are Watching Us

Sergio Huidobro of the 2016 Berlinale Talent Press reviews Jeff Nichols' fourth feature and his third premiere at the Berlinale, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, which merges road movie formulas with a sci-fi plot.


Regarding his previous features, it’s clear that Jeff Nichols has some respect for seventies and eighties Hollywood mainstream classics. It’s also clear that he’s not going after any proven formulas or nostalgic advantages. As Nichols’ MUD (USA 2012) revealed a fortunate appropriation of coming of age narratives, his recent premiere in the Berlinale Competition, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, takes a creative, personal twist on sci-fi thriller materials which recall Spielberg's alien-themed films or an X FILES episode.

Starring Nichols’ amulets Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard, along with Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL follows a father (Shannon) and his sickly child (Jaeden Lieberher) as they are pursued by both a religious group and the federal government when they learn that the kid has special powers. Joined by the child’s mother (Dunst) and a deserter trooper (Edgerton), they are all on the run both to evade the NSA to make a foretold appointment so that the kid can go back “where-he-come-from”, which could mean either death or an alien abduction.

That’s only an example of how the film constantly deals with ambiguity and disseminated information. But ironically, it's unclear if it even succeeds in doing it or not. Sometimes it does and sometimes hints are left strangely unsolved. Surely it takes too long to know what is really going on or who isn’t insane, since everyone seems to have deep religious, political, scientific or new-aged expectations entrusted in the boy’s unusual skills. Nevertheless, Nichols’ script is compelling when it comes to building suspense and mixing drama with thrilling action sequences.

Nichols’ screenplay may evoke references such as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but MIDGNIGHT still feels like a pure Nichols film. It has the same ethical ambiguity as seen in MUD and that mood of menace upon an average American family that made SHELTER work so well, and with Shannon playing a similar role here. Does that make Nichols an auteur? Maybe it doesn’t. But it makes him a filmmaker that's worth watching.