Jeff Nichols is by no means the first American filmmaker to utilise the strange, otherworldly beauty of the American interior as the backdrop for his brief but already impressive oeuvre. As a point of reference for the uninitiated, imagine that Terrence Malick decided to drop the overt philosophical posturing and make a good old-fashioned genre picture. The result wouldn’t be that far removed from a Jeff Nichols film.
That is not to suggest in the slightest that Nichols’ films don’t offer profound philosophical musings on both human nature and the transforming relationship between man and faith. Unlike Malick’s moving but often meandering sermons on the human soul and its relation to the nature, the cosmos, and everything in between, Nichols’ greatness lies in the fact that he never loses sight of film’s function as a popular art form. Take Nichols’ latest feature, Midnight Special – a film that with any luck will expose the director to the wider audience he so desperately deserves – which is just as Spielbergian as it is Malickian. Beneath the chassis of Nichols’ sci-fi road movie – which incidentally owes more than a little to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., and New Hollywood in general – is a moving thesis on fatherhood, coming of age, cults, and faith. But more on that later.
It is a testament to Nichols’ greatness, and the strength of the Terrence Malick comparison made above, that Shotgun Stories, Nichols’ debut feature, was listed in Sight and Sound magazine’s list of 10 great breakthrough American independent films beside the likes of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Malick’s Badlands, and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. To emphasise the company he keeps as an American great, that list also includes the likes of John Cassavetes, Charles Burnett, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino. Romero, Malick, and Zeitlin are particularly striking points of comparison for Nichols’ filmography though.
Many of the great American directors are either pointedly urban or rural filmmakers. Like those three films mentioned above, Nichols manages to find terrible, haunting beauty in the nation’s wild interior (both literally and figuratively) that allows his films to serve as interesting commentaries on the state of the nation as a whole. Shotgun Stories is a simple but effective story of two sets of estranged half-siblings going to war over their mutual father’s death. Beside offering a profound sense of place, Nichols’ debut boasts an exquisitely understated performance from Michael Shannon, the director’s muse. It was the first indication that Jeff Nichols was a talent to keep your eye on.
In an ideal world Michael Shannon would have won an Oscar for the director and actor’s following collaboration, Take Shelter. It is not an overstatement to say that Take Shelter is a five-star masterpiece of recent American independent cinema. Nor is it an overstatement to say that in it, Shannon delivers one of the most searing performances of the last decade. Shannon is always at his best playing unhinged and potentially monstrous characters, and Take Shelter is no exception. As a man haunted by apocalyptic dreams he must decide whether or not to shelter his family from the coming storm that may or may not be himself.
Opposite an equally fantastic and thoroughly understated Jessica Chastain, Shannon proves himself one of his generation’s great actors while Nichols quietly announces himself as a major talent behind the camera. On the strength of Take Shelter, it would not be out of place to say that a director-actor duo reminiscent of the quality of early Scorsese and De Niro was steamrolling into American film. If Shotgun Stories was their Mean Streets then, hell, Take Shelter must be their Taxi Driver.
Mud, Nichols’ third and equally acclaimed feature, sees Michael Shannon step down from his role as Nichols’ go-to leading man as Matthew McConaughey takes up the reins at the height of the ongoing McConaissance. McConaughey’s good looks and Southern charm were essential for a character that bonds with two young boys – don’t take it the wrong way, Michael, but with those eyes it would have been a much harder sell! Owing much to the works of Mark Twain, Nichols’ third successive critical hit tells the story of the eponymous Mud, a drifting fugitive who, with the help of two young boys, must evade the law to be reunited with his lost love.
While Mud lacks the fire-and-brimstone inferno of a lead performance that Take Shelter had courtesy of Shannon (who does return for a smaller role), McConaughey’s restraint proves to be Nichols’ ace in the hole in a performance that accentuates the mysticism surrounding the film’s narrative. While slightly let down by its ending – don’t worry, there’ll be no spoilers here – it is a testament to Nichols’ sheer talent that this still-great film might actually be his weakest.
On the strength of his previous work, Midnight Special was without question one of the hot tickets of Berlinale 66 and it did not disappoint. The film boasts a terrific cast that includes Michael Shannon (of course), Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher. By the time credits rolled, most critics agreed that Nichols’ first attempt at a sci-fi movie was nothing less than a triumph. The film opens with a father on the run with his son from various groups in light of learning that the youngster possesses special powers. Rather than spoil the twisting plot of one of the most arresting, imaginative science-fiction films of recent years, just make a pact upon reading this that you will go and see it when it is released this month. While the final 10 minutes will no doubt prove divisive among viewers, it takes little away from this exciting, intelligent piece of American filmmaking from a devilishly talented director.
On paper Nichols’ next feature Loving, a drama about the legal wranglings that surrounded the marriage of an interracial Virginian couple in the late 1950s, might seem worlds away from a pulse-racing genre piece like Midnight Special. But on closer inspection the recurring themes of family, outsiders, and human nature suggest that perhaps that isn’t the case. Watch this space to see if the murmurings of Oscars flourish into anything more. On the back of Midnight Special, however, we have strong evidence that Nichols could, if he so wishes, be primed for the role of Hollywood’s next blockbusting auteur. Someone please give this man a Star Wars movie!