Jeff Nichols’s latest film, Midnight Special, is a beautiful, sad, striking work of cinematic art. There’s my review in a nutshell. I loved it. But there’s a very strong criticism from even some people who share my opinion: That ending.
Obviously, spoilers ahead.
Let’s start with the film’s story. Midnight Special follows a father and special-powered son who, along with the father’s childhood friend and eventually the mother, are running from the cult that worshiped the boy and the federal government who sees him as a threat. They need to get to a certain place at a certain time for an unknown reason. Throughout the film, the father and son are only briefly separated.
And that’s where the problem with the ending lies in some audience members eyes. At the film’s climax, the father leaves his son with the boy’s mother so mom and son can get to where the child needs to be. Dad drives off with his friend in the car, which means the military will chase them instead of interrupting the child’s shift to a parallel universe.
Yes, the dad leaves the son. Even Nichols, who was at an Alamo Drafthouse screening in Austin last weekend, said it didn’t necessarily make narrative sense as a father-son story. Of course, the film isn’t that. Like all Nichols films, it’s this father’s story alone.
Part of the inspiration for the film, according to Nichols, was the birth of his own child. Here he’s unpacking the idea of fatherhood and its scary and beautiful nature. In that sense, Midnight Special has more in common with The Babadook (about motherhood) than it does Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Fatherhood aside, Nichols’s films—from Shotgun Stories to Mud—have a central theme: The collision of primal masculinity and modern emotional vulnerability. When male weakness is exposed, how does the man respond? In Midnight Special, the relationship Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) has with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) still focuses on this idea, just told through a filter of paternity.
I’m no parent, but after watching this film, I know with certainty that having a child is an exquisite vulnerability. When Roy has to make the choice of leaving his son with his mother or being there to see his son disappear, something he could have easily done because his friend could have driven the car away, Roy can’t do it. His response is emotional disengagement and aggression, knowing that by fleeing he’s setting himself up for a final, possibly deadly confrontation with soldiers in armored vehicles.
Filtering the central theme through fatherhood appears to be where the hang-up lies. People want a Spielberg movie and instead they get a Nichols movie. Midnight Special is almost anti-Spielbergian. The blockbuster master’s films were about a father’s legacy, how his actions (present or not) impact the life of the child. In Midnight Special, it’s about how a child affects a father. Even in Shotgun Stories, a film about adult brothers abandoned by their father and their war with the father’s other family, is more about the aggressive masculine response to an emotional situation than it is about that relationship with the father. If Midnight Special had a bold, big-hearted payoff, it would have done a disservice to the film’s intent.
Nichols never sets out to make a Spielberg movie. He’s said John Carpenter was a bigger influence, and Michael Mann seems just as stylistically important. His continued focus on the flaws of masculinity puts his work more in line with Scorsese’s than the king of entertainment’s. However, unlike his boomer influences, Nichols is trying to find a role for maleness in world marching toward gender diversity and equality. To abandon that idea means not completely making narrative sense in order to make thematic sense. And if we’re going to push the boundaries of cinema, I’ll take thematic sense every time.