Friday, February 12, 2016

Notes on Midnight Special by Jeff Nichols, USA: 2016-Berlin Filmfestival-II.-Competition

"A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.” 
Theodore Sturgeon

The German pioneer of fantastic literature E.T.A. Hoffmann once said that the author must offer the reader a ladder where he can climb by himself from the reality to another fantastic world. This sentence about fantastic literature is still useful for cinema and like in this case for science fiction films.

The film begins like a thriller: two men and a young boy are escaping in the middle of the night with a car. The only strange thing is that the boy has special strange looking glasses. They drive by nights and like so often in films with Road Movie elements, the story is enfolded during a journey. The fantastic elements develops from real landscapes, highways, country roads, service stations and strange houses in the middle of nowhere. When they drive by night, the mysterious boy reads super hero comics. In contrast to the invincible super heroes the boy who has as well supernatural abilities remains a child who is scared. As the story enfolds we learn about that this group. The men are Roy the boy Alton´s father and Lucas, a friend of Roy since school. They are hunted by religious fanatics who see in Alton a kind of Messiahs but they are hunted as well by FBI, NSA and CIA who consider Alton´s abilities as a thread for national security.
Like in the  first long film by Jeff Nichols  Shotgun Stories or in his previous Mud, outbreaks of violence happen like an explosion. During their escape a police man is shot, later two men of this religious sect are shooting at Roy and Lucas. These are short and ugly moments and nothing seems to be stylized.

It is also a family story, because they meet later in the film Alton´s mother who once abandoned the child. Like in his wonderful Take Shelter (which has also a slight science fiction element in the character´s apocalyptic night mares), the composition of family drama in Take Shelter and Midnight Special, the adventure or science fiction elements in Take Shelter, Mud or again Midnight Special are sometimes fusing together, another time they keep a certain independency from each other. That makes it difficult to point the finger on the special magic in the films by Jeff Nichols. And it is not easy to say where exactly Nichols set a certain effect or where this effects results from the “ladder of E.T.A.Hoffmann” - or in other words -  is the cross point between inspiring moments of this film and our own imagination?

For my side a key moment in the films by Jeff Nichols is the end of Take Shelter. We finally accepted that Michael Shannon´s character is mentally ill and paranoid, his visions of an apocalyptic storm a delusion. But than when he plays peacefully with his daughter on a beach, scaring clouds announce the destructive natural catastrophe from his night mares. But the actual moment which left me breathless is this glance from Shannon to Jessica Chastain and her confirming nod back to him.

Nichols never gives the mystery away, he rather give hints and small suggestions.
It is characteristic that a big part of Midnight Special takes place in the darkness of the night and in some moments it is hard to recognize anything.

And again Michael Shannon offers an adorable performance. Here his character is a likely lost and introverted man but again very credible as a common man and there must be some truth in in when Wenders once said that “American actors are minimalists by nature”. But it seems in all films and TV series I have seen with Shannon, he is never as fascinating like in Jeff Nichols´ films, Other try to let him act, Nichols let him be.

Even though the film has a fantastic showdown rather unusually for Nichols even this opulence does not harm the mystery atmosphere. Like Take Shelter, Midnight Special ends with an expression in Michael Shannon´s face and that is only one of many things which will stay with me. I think there is no need to repeat the frequent comparison between Nichols and America´s finest living director Terrence Malick. But there is a quote from David Fincher on Malick: “a cinema outside of Hollywood but very American in its sensitivity”. That does not only describe Malick but in other ways directors like James Benning, Richard Linklater or Matt Porterfield and it is also a good hint to the films of the young American filmmaker Jeff Nichols.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sat, 13.Feb Haus der Berliner Festspiele 11.00
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