Get Excited About Jeff Nichols

I saw the sci-fi mystery Midnight Special on a whim one Friday night, drawn in by an understated advertising campaign that didn’t give much indication as to the film’s plot. In a cinematic world dominated by sequels and adaptations, it’s rare to go the theater without knowing fairly well what you’re getting into, and even rarer to see an original sci-fi film by a rising young director with an indie bent. I came out of the theater wanting more, and eagerly burned through two more of his films. What I found is a filmmaker with a new, unique voice, making original, thoughtful films.

I saw Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special out of sequence, but I’ll talk about them here in chronological order.

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Thoughts on Take Shelter

Take Shelter is actually Nichols’ sophomore effort, following up his 2007 debut, Shotgun Stories.  Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a blue-collar Ohio man haunted by otherworldly dreams of an impending disaster. Convinced that his family is in real danger, he sets to building a tornado shelter in his back yard, which alarms his wife (Jessica Chastain).

The feeling that something very bad is about to happen is inescapable at the moment. In Take Shelter, Nichols’ uncanny storm feels like a stand-in for every brewing apocalyptic nightmare plastered across our social media feeds and cable news. This disaster itself and its consequences are of secondary importance within the story: the focus instead zeroes in on the relationship between Curtis and his wife, and its ability to survive an outside threat that may or may not be real. These two people have to get on the same page, or they’ll lose each other.

It’s difficult to imagine this film working as well with any actor other than Michael Shannon in the lead role. He is able to evoke dread without ever actually freaking out as his character goes about his life under a looming terror. It’s no wonder he became Nichols’ go-to leading man.

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Thoughts on Mud

Mud is a tense and evocative take on the coming-of-age genre, set in Nichols’ native Arkansas. The Mark Twain-tinged story centers on 14-year-old river dweller Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who happen upon a lovelorn drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) during an excursion to find a boat in a tree on an island and end up involving themselves in their new friend’s mission to find his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). Meanwhile, Ellis’ home life begins to unravel as he watches the erosion of his parents’ marriage.

Mud takes a different look at romantic relationships: their beginnings, their ends, and the lengths that we will go to preserve them, even when we shouldn’t. Ellis, desperate for an example of real love, latches onto Mud’s relationship as a prototype when his parents’ fails. He tries to replicate that love himself, and ultimately finds that it isn’t the ideal that he had hoped for.

A striking aspect of Mud is its sense of place and time. Nichols obviously knows the area intimately and captures it in its beautiful, mundane glory. It’s recognizably the South, but is devoid of the stereotypes that often plague Hollywood depictions. All of the lead players are natives of Southern states, lending a dose of authenticity to the performances and dialog. In front this rich backdrop is the most resonant depiction of American boyhood that I can recall since Stand By Me. As in that film, young men are faced with a situation that pushes them over the edge into the adult world, with all the emotional upheaval that goes with such a transition.

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Thoughts on Midnight Special

If Nichols dipped his toes into the sci-fi genre with Take Shelter, he takes the plunge with Midnight Special. Tapping into a budget twice the size of his first three films combined, he’s got a much bigger sandbox in which to play with the genre. Nichols wisely eschews CGI-laden spectacle in favor of solid storytelling and suspense, resulting in one of the most entertaining and genuinely spooky films of the year thus far.

We drop into the story as Roy (Michael Shannon) smuggles his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) away from a cult-like religious group’s rural compound, accompanied by off-duty state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). From there, details about who Alton is and the purpose of the mission come out in small doses, keeping the tension relentlessly high as both the religious group and the federal government pursue the boy.

The directorial approach is unapologetically Spielbergian, combining economical pacing with arresting, otherworldly imagery and more than a handful of lens flares. Nichols is able to capture some of the awe and magic of the eighties sci-fi classics without falling into the territory of homage, employing more restraint than JJ Abrams did in his unabashed throwback Super 8 (2011). Midnight Special’s aesthetic serves its story, not the other way around.

Beneath the sci-fi conceit, Midnight Special is a story about the lengths to which parents will go for their children, especially in the face of outside judgement and opposition. Shannon’s performance crucially captures the stress and joy of parenthood, while young actor Jaeden Lieberher gives Alton enough realism to make the father-son dynamic work.

Throughout Nichols’ films, we see different versions of human relationships that are struggling to survive. Nichols plays with genre and visuals in interesting ways, but only to the extent that they support the human-centered stories. It’s an extremely encouraging pattern to observe in an up-and-coming director’s work.

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