Awards Profile: Midnight Special

midnight specialWelcome to the 2015 Awards Profiles series.  For the next two months, every day (except for Saturday), we will bring you a run down of a future 2015 film that we see as a potential awards vehicle for next year’s Academy Awards.  This is all speculative since with just about all these films, we haven’t seen a frame yet.  Nonetheless, we venture on.  If you miss a film, then click on the tag “2015 Awards Profile.”

Directed By: Jeff Nichols
Written By: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, Scott Haze and James DuMont

Synopsis: (From IMDB) “A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers”

Why It Could Succeed:

Midnight Special is auteur director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature film but marks the first of his works to be backed by a major studio (Warner Bros). Clearly, his past three micro-budget films – Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and recent success Mud – have amassed him enough goodwill in Hollywood to finally warrant major funding for a project. Based on what little we know of the movie, Midnight Special doesn’t appear to be a studio sellout. Nichols is still all about concentrating on specific human dramas and the massive ripple effects they have on the community at large. You can guarantee that Nichols’ ensemble-driven trademark will be on display, the various actors and even extras all contributing to Nichols’ grounded and realistic world-building tendencies.

When I read about this film, the first thing that came to mind was that it’s thematically parallel to family-driven sci-fi fare like Starman, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Looper, but with the thriller/chase element that defined classics such as Logan’s Run and Blade Runner. Nichols’ movies are never about just one thing – they are layered with subtext, concurrent themes and even multiple side-stories to enhance the sense that we’re experiencing a living, breathing world where no single character, situation or plot thread is necessarily more diegetically important than the other.

If the special effects are stupendously executed and the film is as thematically rich as promised, we could be looking at a sleeper hit right before the Star Wars: Episode 7 craze unleashes in December. If I was a betting man, I’d venture to guess in the hands of Jeff Nichols Midnight Special will go the route of Looper and District 9, thereby avoiding the disastrous reputations of Elysium and Jupiter Ascending.

Why It Could Fail:

Speaking of Jupiter Ascending — not to mention the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas — Warner Bros. has been on a bit of a losing streak when it comes to spending a small fortune on “original” science fiction films. Given their poor luck with this genre, Midnight Special could be negatively affected via less-than-enthusiastic marketing and stiff competition that’s sure to eat into its profits. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is slated for release one week before Midnight Special’s debut, surely extinguishing any fire the latter film might have built pre-release by the time it finally does unveil. Even good word-of-mouth and critical acclaim stand no match against rabid franchise fanboys and fangirls. Heck, even with a slow rollout and an Academy Award-nomination for Best Picture, among others, Spike Jonze’s sci-fi drama Her barely broke even at the domestic box office. What’s to say Midnight Special won’t suffer a similar fate?

There’s also the concern that Nichols’ style might not translate well to the genre, which lives and dies based on how visually compelling it is and whether or not audiences fall in love with the created universe presented. Given Nichols’ penchant for juggling various themes and storylines, fans of the genre might feel a bit frustrated by the narrative’s lack of focus. Most sci-fi buffs enter the genre to escape as much as exercise their mind, and if Nichols doesn’t find the right balance to appease both desires, he’ll likely be shunned from the very community he hopes to break into.

Two great villain roles this year...which might split the vote and leave Adam Driver out of the Oscar race.
Two great villain roles this year…which might split the vote and leave Adam Driver out of the Oscar race.

Awards Speculation:

Again, much of this depends on how much money the film earns and whether or not it hits the zeitgeist the way that most sci-fi Best Picture nominees normally do in their respective years. Looper’s snub for “Original Screenplay” has me slightly worried that Midnight Special might get the same lame treatment from the writer’s branch. Lately, however, small original films that turn out to be surprise hits tend to get some kind of recognition for being the exception to the rule. Nightcrawler’s screenplay nod, for instance, gives me hope that not all is lost for independent filmmakers with unique stories to share.

As far as acting nominations are concerned, Adam Driver’s 2014-2015 resume should surely help him mount some kind of “Supporting Actor” momentum, though he might be his own worst enemy as he’ll be competing with himself in the more prolific villainous role from the upcoming Star Wars film. Kirsten Dunst’s significance in Midnight Special is unclear, but if there’s one young actress overdue for some Oscar love, it’s certainly her. More than likely, though, newcomer Jaeden Lieberher – who broke out last year with his tear-jerking turn opposite Bill Murray in St. Vincent – will be showered with Haley Joel Osment comparisons and given a hefty “Supporting Actor” campaign courtesy of Warner Bros. Lest we forget, Michael Shannon is a past Academy Award nominee and could turn up again if his father figure strikes the right emotional chord. Though if I’m being completely honest, if Matthew McConaughey couldn’t do it last year with Interstellar, I highly doubt Shannon’s performance will persuade his fellow actors to throw enough votes his way for a nod.

Oscar Potential:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Supporting Actor – Jaeden Lieberher or Adam Driver
Best Original Screenplay
Best Film Editing
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score
Best Visual Effects