The opening of The Beguiled is lush on every level: Mist hangs in the moss-draped trees as a young girl goes out mushroom-picking, her singing underscored by an uncanny low rumble. We’re in the Civil War South, so that rumble must be battle, a muffled sound that barely intrudes on the idyllic scene. This is director Sofia Coppola in signature mode, creating voluptuous sights and sounds that disguise a serious deficiency of ideas. The Beguiled may be the most inert of Coppola’s films, a vapid cruise through an isolated hothouse. Along with its other shortcomings, it’s not nearly as interesting (and nowhere near as perverse) as the 1971 film that precedes it, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood.
If it were more purely about the workplace and less about the homefront, Hidden Figures might have an even stronger case for shining a light on unknown American history. The history in this case surrounds NASA and the lives of three black women who set a new standard for the status of African-Americans in the space program. The three women only occasionally overlap, but we meet them in an outstanding opening scene as they carpool to NASA’s Virginia site in the early 1960s. A minor problem stops the car, which is really no challenge given the mechanically minded women driving it; the ladies bide their time with jokes and easy, confident banter as they tinker with the engine. Then a police cruiser stops by, and the freeze that descends over the scene is immediate. The cop isn’t especially menacing; but these are black women and a white police officer in the Jim Crow South, and that is enough for instant watchfulness.
A terrific moment, which though defused sets the tone for what is to come. Throughout Hidden Figures the reality of being black and female is presented as a struggle that never ends.
We need to talk about Alton. Nice boy, bright, well-behaved. But it seems strange that his eyes sometimes shine like the demon kids’ peepers in Village of the Damned, and that he occasionally speaks in unison with the deejay on the Spanish-language radio station—even when the radio isn’t turned on. Little things like that.
Alton’s peculiarity is at the heart of Midnight Special, the fourth feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). As the film begins, we are mysteriously in the middle of the action: Eight-year-old Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher, the boy from The Confirmation) is being transported across Texas by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s state-trooper buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The authorities are after them, but we don’t know why. Meanwhile, a religious patriarch (Sam Shepard), who seems to be the leader of some sort of apocalyptic cult, orders his deputy (Bill Camp) to find the kid at all costs.
Jeff Nichols is in the zone. With just a handful of films, the Little Rock, Arkansas, native has crafted his own busy little pocket of Southern Gothic, spilling over with feuding families (2007’s Shotgun Stories), ordinary people touched with terrible prophecy (2011’s Take Shelter), and the painful limits of self-aware mythologizing (2012’s Mud). Whatever the subject, the writer/director’s movies are all marked by unobtrusive camerawork, unsparing yet respectful looks at blue-collar living, and a few touches of downright weirdness somehow specific to his region. (Shotgun Stories features a father who names his offspring Son, Boy, and Kid, which is something that you can imagine Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee enthusiastically high-fiving about in the afterlife.) He’s got chops, is what I’m saying.
Midnight Special, Nichols’ latest, continues the director’s winning streak. While on its surface an affectionate throwback to the kid-friendly sci-fi adventures of yesteryear (as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz said on Twitter, if this had been made in the ’80s, it’d never stop playing on HBO), its underlying themes of families under pressure make it very much of a piece with the filmmaker’s other work.
Many people are milling around the Greek tourist sights at the beginning of The Two Faces of January, but our story will ignore almost all of them. It’s only the shady characters who interest us here. Con artists always have something at stake—exposure, the possibility of their past transgressions catching up with them, and suspense about their next game. Three of them meet in the shadow of the Parthenon: Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tour guide knocking around Athens in the early 1960s, and Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), a stockbroker and his younger wife on extended vacation.
Patricia Highsmith, the author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, hatched this group of expat swindlers, so there’s likely to be at least as much psychological game-playing as conventional suspense.