JEFF NICHOLS is in the zone. With just a handful of films, the Little Rock, Arkansas, native has crafted his own busy little pocket of Southern Gothic, spilling over with feuding families (2007's Shotgun Stories), ordinary people touched with terrible prophecy (2011's Take Shelter), and the painful limits of self-aware mythologizing (2012's Mud). Whatever the subject, the writer/director's movies are all marked by unobtrusive camerawork, unsparing yet respectful looks at blue-collar living, and a few touches of downright weirdness somehow specific to his region. (Shotgun Stories features a father who names his offspring Son, Boy, and Kid, which is something that you can imagine Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee enthusiastically high-fiving about in the afterlife.) He's got chops, is what I'm saying.
Midnight Special, Nichols' latest, continues the director's winning streak. While on its surface an affectionate throwback to the kid-friendly sci-fi adventures of yesteryear (as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz said on Twitter, if this had been made in the '80s, it'd never stop playing on HBO), its underlying themes of families under pressure make it very much of a piece with the filmmaker's other work.
Told with a bare minimum of backstory, Nichols' script follows two armed men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) on the run with an eight-year-old boy (Jaeden Lieberher), pursued by both a scarily determined religious cult and a baffled cadre of government agents. While a geeky NSA agent (Adam Driver) attempts to plot the trio's next move, an increasing number of mysterious events hint that the boy, well, just ain't quite right. There's the way his eyes tend to glow in the middle of the night, for one thing.
As Take Shelter showed, Nichols has a talent for displaying the mundane and surreal in disarming proportions, with the most amazing events often occurring when the characters are at their least prepared. (For my money, there are few moments finer this decade than the scene in Shelter where Michael Shannon parks on a highway at night and wonders aloud if anyone else is seeing things.) What special effects there are in Midnight Special always go one or two steps beyond what's expected; in particular, an incident that goes down at an underpopulated gas station is shuddery and wild.
Cool as the sci-fi elements are, though, they wouldn't work nearly as well without being grounded in the everyday, which is turning out to be a specialty of the director. (See Mud, where the entire plot hinged on a couple of kids excitedly discovering porn in the woods.) That sense of reality under duress continues here, with folks such as Sam Shepard and Kirsten Dunst in small yet meaty roles, where even the bad guys are realistically conflicted about what they feel they must do. (Edgerton, who has the lead in Nichols' next film, is tremendously likeable as a man of few words, all of which are worth hearing.) Above all, though, it's got Michael Shannon, who continues to be Nichols' most valuable asset, mixing strength, sorrow, and flinty-eyed pride to fascinatingly unstable effect. When he cracks, it feels like the world is ending. Which it very well might be.
Optimism is tough to pull off in the movies, and the relatively sunny disposition of Midnight Special may, at first glance, feel not quite as focused as some of the director's other, darker-tinged films. By the final act, however, it all comes together, in ways that earn their hopefulness without sentiment. Nichols' built-for-speed tribute to Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter does his influences proud, while also suggesting he's still expanding his horizons. Right now, he's as good as we've got.