The films of writer-director Jeff Nichols are all about characters, ordinary men and women pushed to the limit by forces outside of their control. Again and again, Nichols trains his eye on the themes of family, its bonds and hardships: his films often about not only what it means to be a father, but also what it means to be a son or daughter. The setting is usually classically American small towns and back roads, where a person can look up at the sky and find an ocean of stars. Under those stars, Nichols lets his dramas —Mud, Take Shelter, and Shotgun Stories — play out, some darker and more bloody than others.
His newest film, Midnight Special, is out this week in limited release. Its plot follows a father forced to go on the run with his young son, a boy possessing mysterious powers, to escape a team of ruthless government agents. What better time to look back at the films that not only influenced Midnight Special, but Nichols’ entire filmography? Sit back, relax and enjoy the fifteen movies that captured the imagination of one of the world’s best contemporary filmmakers.
Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. the Extraterrestrial (Steven Spielberg)
Like so many contemporary filmmakers, Nichols was raised on the work of Steven Spielberg, a true American icon. During an interview with Vanity Fair, Nichols noted that the elements which drew him to Spielberg’s film were not necessarily the same flashy special effects that often caught the public’s attention. “The way Spielberg shows middle-class American life, it’s so interesting,” said Nichols. ” Nobody ever talks about it.” Indeed for many audiences, the filmmaker’s innate understanding of character and people takes a distant second to his flying spaceships and monster sharks.
Spielberg’s stone-cold classic, Jaws, is not really a film about a killer shark. Rather, it’s about how a community of people react to the presence of a shark, a man-eater who has taken a liking to the waters of Amity Island. “It’s only an island if you look at it from the water,” says Police Chief Brody, a man whose wife openly jokes about his crippling fear of the ocean. “There’s a word for it, isn’t there?” she asks, amused. “Drowning,” he curtly replies. As our hero, Brody is an unexpected choice, a family man still new to the island community. Even as the body count rises, Brody’s home life remains a rock for him, undisturbed by this nightmare until his own son finds himself a near-victim of the shark’s violence — a classic call to action, forcing this man to confront his fear of the water under the most dire of circumstances. Brody himself knows what must be done, though he protests his fate to oceanographer Matt Hooper, claiming that he cannot do this. To which Hooper replies, “Yes, you can.”
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg captures an overwhelming sense of awe-inspiring wonderment as his working-class heroes endure under extraordinary circumstances. Glowing orbs descend from the night sky and alien ships glide over our terrain with frightening speed and agility, drawing the attention of thousands all over the world. As our characters succumb to their obsession from the skies, the ever-present sounds of family life echo in the background, a reminder that, among a myriad of alien arrival movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a warm and hopeful tale. “You look at (the film), go into Richard Dreyfuss’s house,” said Nichols. “There’s a kid banging on a piano, and there’s clutter and there’s life and people live there.” Refreshingly, the government agents in Spielberg’s films are not heartless bureaucrats eager to wipe out our new visitors, but open-minded dreamers hoping to catch a glimpse of a being from the stars.
The same could be said of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, undoubtedly the most uniquely “Spielbergian” film of the accomplished director’s career. It’s a universally heartwarming story of children attempting to reunite a lost alien child with his family. The boy who discovers the alien, Elliot, has his own familial problems caused by his parents’ recent divorce. These scenes in bedrooms or around the noisy dinner table never pitch over into cloy sentimentality, as much as Spielberg’s detractors may suggest otherwise. Early on, an argument between two brothers ends with the youngest calling the oldest “penis breath.” Their mother tries her best to mask her laughter as she scolds the boys for fighting.”It’s not boring and it’s not mundane,” Nichols said. “It’s just very real.” Despite the woefully distracting CGI additions added to a later edition, the film is an enduring emotional masterpiece for the ages.
Badlands (Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick‘s haunting and masterful debut has influenced everyone from Nichols and David Gordon Green to Andrew Dominik and Harmony Korine. It’s an often-imitated (shades of Sissy Spacek’s voiceover narration are noticeable in such varied films as True Romance and Raising Arizona) tale of two simple-minded lovers whose cross-country killing spree ends in high-speed police pursuit. For Nichols, it was the peculiar details of Malick’s film that captured his imagination, such as the way Sheen’s character hands out his few personal possessions to arresting officers as valuable souvenirs: “I saw Badlands in college.” said Nichols. “I’d never seen it before. I went home after and called my older brother and was like, ‘Man, there’s this movie, Badlands. This guy gives away his comb at the end. It’s really funny and weird and dark.'” It’s sadly magical and mysterious film about the loss of innocence, one which remains among Malick’s most adored contributions to the medium.
The Searchers (John Ford)
Widely regarded as John Ford‘s masterpiece, The Searchers fits perfectly into the thematic world explored in Nichols’ films. After his family is murdered and his nieces kidnapped by Comanche warriors, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Confederate soldier sets out to track them and return the girls home. Despite the grim subject matter, you can see richly defined comedic moments that must have thrilled Nichols, such as when a fist fight is temporarily paused to return a fiddle to its rightful owner, or the grizzled Captain receiving medical attention to his injured backside. It’s a western about the vows of family which plays out over a number of years, their search eventually costing Edwards not only his livelihood, but his home. As their seemingly endless journey begins, Edwards is begged to call off his mission: “Don’t let the boys waste their lives in vengeance!” Ultimately, this is exactly what Edwards does.
Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford)
At the center of Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies, we have Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) a broken man trying to put himself and his life back together. He used to be a country-western singer, but that was a long time ago. Lately, he’s just a drunk, one whom we meet face down on a motel floor while surrounded by empty beer cans and whiskey bottles. Broke and alone, he offers to work off his debt at the motel, much to the surprise of its owner (Tess Harper). Although the word “surprise” feels like an overstatement for such a quiet film in which searing emotions are often subdued, its characters photographed in wide shots to accentuate the emptiness of a flat landscape. As Sledge, Duvall delivered arguably his finest performance in a story about a boy who loses his father and a father who will, in turn, lose his daughter. Horton Foote’s breathtaking screenplay captures the painful realities and hopeful deeds of these lonely people, whose cries of agony are often accompanied by the plucking of guitar strings.
The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Jeff Nichols once said, “There are five films I like. Four of them star Paul Newman.” He was referring to The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Hud and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s easy to see how the public fell in love with Newman and his smile. Already an Academy Award nominee when he made The Hustler, here was Newman’s first starring vehicle: a hotshot pool hustler with his sights set on Minnesota Fats, the best pool player in the country. Within moments of his first on-screen appearance, Newman establishes Fast Eddie Felson with only body language and a few words as he prowls the pool hall, sizing up the joint. Newman is surrounded by an intimidating powerhouse of a supporting cast, including Jackie Gleeson and George C. Scott, playing characters who know all too well the thin line between the winners and losers.
In grave contrast to the smokey interiors of Robert Rossen‘s film, the sparse and wide open terrain of Martin Ritt‘s Hud is haunting to behold. Adapted from Larry McMurtry‘s novel, the story of the Bannon family and their eventual collapse moves at a slow-burn pace utterly befitting its directionless characters. Three generations of Bannons live together on a ranch in Texas, from which they eke out a meager living. Lonnie, an innocent, baby-faced teenager, watches over a dead cow while Grandpa Homer is left to oversee hundreds of cattle, all of which may have recently contracted foot and mouth disease– a diagnosis that might bring about the demise of their entire operation. The titular anarchistic force, Hud, Homer’s son and Lonnie’s uncle, should be helping out on the ranch, but instead finds himself in the bedrooms of married women all over the county. It culminates in a tragic and disturbing finale when Newman’s lead character bullheadedly refuses to learn from his unforgivable mistakes and remains a hopelessly troubled, lost spirit.
Speaking of troubled individuals, Cool Hand Luke is a petulant boot in the face of authority, an almost revolutionary film about a fresh-faced convict who becomes a pseudo-martyr for his fellow prisoners. It’s easy to throw around the word “iconic” when discussing films of the American New Wave, but to describe the audience reaction to Paul Newman’s performance in any other way would be an insult. Grinning in the face of constant disappointment, Luke goes through hell in that prison, the not-so-subtle religious iconography in an otherwise marvelously scripted film underlining his eventual fate. On the other side of the fence: the bosses are not drawn merely as one-dimensional villains, for that would have been too easy. They’re men of all different types “merely doing their job,” as they say. Not to mention such equally great turns by Harry Dean Stanton, George Kennedy and Dennis Hopper, whose weirdness can be seen in the corners of nearly every frame. Incidentally, it’s rather neat that you can have a performance as strange as Hopper’s in such a film. Cool Hand Luke is a rousing and enjoyable ride that kicks you in the teeth in its final moments.
The same could be said of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. George Roy Hill‘s romantically nostalgic classic is not a film that tonally prepares the audience for its ending, though there are countless omens projecting these outlaws’ fate. We love these cowboys even more because we know that they’re doomed. Butch and Sundance die in a freeze frame because we want to remember them in freeze frame, alive and ready to fight, not as bullet-riddled corpses à la Bonnie and Clyde. Early on, Butch muses, “You know, when I was a kid, I always thought I’d grow up to be a hero.” To which Sundance snaps, “Yeah, well, it’s too late now.” It’s a beautifully sad film, one that Hill and cinematographer Conrad Hall composed with stunning precision. “I was watching Butch Cassidy on a plane, without sound, and noticed that scenes were shot in fluid master shots,” Nichols said to Cinema Scope. “They’re not in a rush to cut images together to get you some place, but they don’t feel slow. The camera moves at the perfect moment. It feels like a scene that was edited together, but you realize that there were only one or two cuts.”
Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow)
Point Break is a master course — not only action filmmaking, but also the effectiveness of cleverly employed star power. Take Johnny Utah and Bodhi, the film’s beloved leads, played by Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, two paper-thin characters who nonetheless draw us into their worlds. One is a hot-shot, college-boy FBI agent, the other a skilled surfer guru who robs banks in order to keep his beach-bum lifestyle afloat. Plunk two other actors and another director on this project and you’ll likely have a turd on your hands. Together, Reeves and Swayze elevate what could have been B-movie character dynamics to a level of white-knuckled enthrallment. On the surface, they couldn’t be further apart, yet share a dangerous obsession. Nichols observed that director Kathryn Bigelow even continued to play on Point Break‘s themes later in her career: “At the end of The Hurt Locker, I was like, Holy crap, she remade Point Break, one of my favorite films. That movie’s all about adrenaline junkies, and The Hurt Locker was adrenaline junkies in Iraq.” As always, Bigalow rightfully revels in her action sequences, all of which are high-watermark fantastic, in particular a top-notch rumble through alleys and backyards as Utah and Bodhi chase each other around, looking for the ultimate ride.
Pale Rider and A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood)
A mining camp under the thumb of a villainous land baron takes in a preacher with a dubious past, the pale rider of the title, who inspires new-found courage and determination in these fearful miners. Although standing as only Clint Eastwood‘s eleventh feature, the film overflows with old western genre tropes, sappy dialogue and hare-brained logic problems. It’s a film that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, following a simplistic, formulaic narrative recipe down to the last dusty detail. Eastwood’s skill behind the camera and authority in front of it saves this film, allowing it to transcend B-western influences. Pale Rider is full of wonderfully choreographed action sequences, complimented by Edward Carfagno‘s authentically stark production design, each piece of which underlines Eastwood’s thrilling lead performance. As an actor, his gaze can turn cold in an instant, even mid-beverage-sip, as he does in Pale Rider, his screen presence at its most towering — despite the fact that Eastwood was already 55 years old at the time. For my money, the middle-aged Eastwood of the ’80s was a actor-filmmaker at his most unabashedly and entertainingly devil-may-care.
It’s no surprise that Nichols cites Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World as one of his favorites: a violent slice of deep-fried Southern Gothic about fathers (or at least father figures) and sons on the back roads of Texas. The oddly specific details of John Lee Hancock‘s top notch script — such as the boy’s Casper the Friendly Ghost costume — plant an audience firmly in this world. Even goofy caricatures, such as a sinister FBI agent (Bradley Whitford), feel right at home. As engaging as the material may be, the film was a rather unexpected choice for both Eastwood and star Kevin Costner, then one of the world’s biggest and most beloved actors. Both artists approached the project with total abandon, pushing its supposedly likable antihero into some truly dark and nasty places. The roads these characters walk are no different than the ones traversed by Nichols’ heroes. The film contains undeniable shades of what would become the relationships between Mud‘s Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan and Midnight Special‘s Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher, outcasts from normal society for complicated reasons. Interesting to consider that only the latter features an actual pairing of father and son. In some sense, A Perfect World ends tragically, like an exquisitely grand redneck opera where sadness and happiness irrevocably intertwined in a world which can sometimes force the young to grow up far too soon.
Dreams (Akira Kurosawa)
An utterly hypnotic, surreal peek inside the psyche of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Akira Kurosawa‘s Dreams is a film haunted by the past, images of war, nuclear fallout, and impending apocalyptic horrors. As dark and disturbing as many of the episodes feel, a great sense of hope and beauty also runs through this film, which ends on a touchingly quiet note. Conceptualized as a collection of the master’s dreams and nightmares brought to life in gorgeous and finely detailed splendor, each chapter features a proxy for Kurosawa himself, a figure caught in a kaleidoscopic web. “I was really impacted by Dreams, which I caught on TV in high school,” Nichols told The Hollywood Reporter. It’s a sea of masterfully rendered and emotionally autobiographical imagery, delivered with astounding lushness by cinematographers Takao Saito and Shôji Ueda, both frequent collaborators with the master. In one of its most haunting sequences, Kurosawa encounters a demon in a ruined world dotted with flowers the size of Christmas trees. In another, a traveler discovers a seemingly utopian village in which the people live happily without the aid of modern technologies. As in real dreams, rarely does Kurosawa employ a logical conclusion to these visions, a choice that endows the film with a unique, otherworldly feel. There is really nothing else in cinema quite like it.
Starman (John Carpenter)
More than thirty years after its release, John Carpenter‘s touching sci-fi fantasy has managed to retain all of its emotional power thanks to pitch-perfect lead performances. An alien crashes on earth, taking the human form of a dead man (Jeff Bridges) to disguise himself until he’s rescued. He kidnaps the dead man’s widow, forcing her to drive him to Arizona, where his mothership will touch down. Like E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Starman is a road movie in which a mysterious figure is pursued by callously lethal government agents. Initially, she fears this strange man wearing her husband’s face, but they slowly form a bond, some genuine sweetness and affection growing between them. Nichols recently told Little White Lies about its connection to Midnight Special: “For this one, I really was looking at sci-fi films from the ’80s, specifically government sci-fi chase films like Starman […] looking structurally at how the narratives unfolded in those films but also the aesthetic […] the colors, lens flares and the general feeling and tone.” Although Starman was an unusually romantic gamble for Carpenter, it paid off brilliantly in this engrossing sci-fi gem, which could also be considered a spiritual prequel to Nichols’ newest film.
Midnight Special arrives in limited release on Friday, March 18.