Opening with a child abduction and ending with a spectacular sci-fi finale on par with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the Bible Belt-spanning “Midnight Special” demonstrates once and for all that indie auteur Jeff Nichols is now the go-to storyteller for the kind of slow-burn supernatural thrill audiences once sought from M. Night Shyamalan — that is, before the “Sixth Sense” director went off the deep end with “Lady in the Water.” Serving up hefty human insight in place of third-act gimmickry, and reuniting him with “Take Shelter” star Michael Shannon, Nichols’ impressively restrained yet limitlessly imaginative fourth feature takes its energy from an ensemble of characters who hold fast to their convictions, even though their beliefs remain shrouded in mystery for much of the journey.
The less audiences know going in, the better, though that could backfire on a movie without a big enough star to attract the crowds it would need to inspire a word-of-mouth following. With only a TV orange alert by way of exposition, “Midnight Special” relies on the ability of an intelligent audience to make sense of what is happening, understanding that even writer-director Nichols probably doesn’t have an explanation for everything. The film opens in a seedy hotel room, where kidnapper Roy Tomlin (Shannon, intense as ever) and his gruff crew-cut accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton, sporting a convincing Texas accent), are holed up with the 8-year-old boy they’re accused of kidnapping. Their young charge is played by Jaeden Lieberher, who held his own against Bill Murray in “St. Vincent,” but takes a sullen backseat for much of this trip.
The TV reporters are suspiciously vague when it comes to information on the missing child, named Alton Meyer, and while their broadcasts serve to amplify the hysteria of his absence, we have reason to be skeptical. As it turns out, Roy is Alton’s birth father, and this is more of a rescue than a kidnapping. Little by little, we learn that Roy and his ex-wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), once lived with a religious cult on “the Ranch,” surrendering their son for adoption to the group’s self-righteous leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard at his most severe).
Though intimidating enough at first glance, Calvin is swiftly and ingloriously deposed before his parishioners — a bunch of glassy-eyed hicks in hand-sewn prairie garb — during an FBI raid that suggests the federal agents may have learned their lesson from 1993’s tragic 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidians just outside Waco, Texas (not far from where the film begins). Nichols treats these gun-toting yahoos with a fair measure of respect, suggesting they had reason to believe in something. After all, Calvin pulled his apocalyptic sermons from whatever Alton mumbled during his violent seizures — or else from looking directly into the boy’s eyes, which emit a blinding white light. Even religious cynics would have a hard time arguing with that nifty trick, which leaves witnesses to the phenomenon feeling a powerful sense of purpose.
Alton is clearly no ordinary child, though everyone has a different understanding of what he might be. Calvin and his followers see him as some sort of prophet, as well as the key to their redemption. Roy and Lucas also recognize him to be special and, more importantly, in need of their protection, risking their lives to drive the boy cross-country for reasons only Alton understands. And greenhorn NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) seems to view him as a serious threat to national security, capable of decoding heavily encrypted transmissions and pulling satellites out of orbit.
With the exception of the latter detail, which makes for one of the film’s most stunning sequences (a meteor shower over a remote Louisiana gas station), the beauty of Nichols’ screenplay is that it relies almost entirely on our imaginations — that, plus anticipation of whatever big reveal might be waiting at the end of the road. He keeps us mostly in the dark, literally, reveling in the deep, velvety blacks of d.p. Adam Stone’s widescreen 35mm cinematography. Considering Alton’s extreme photosensitivity — so much so that he might die or explode if exposed to light — Roy and Lucas drive exclusively by night, using a succession of different vehicles, beginning with a classic 1972 Chevelle whose rumbling motor makes your insides vibrate, while composer David Wingo amplifies our sense of squirmy unease with his agitated score.
When not on the road, they hunker down in safe houses behind blacked-out windows, with Alton safely hidden behind cobalt-colored goggles. There’s something special about the way celluloid responds to such low-light conditions, adding mystery to those sections of the frame that remain unexposed — which, like the train whose headlamp gave prisoners hope of redemption in the pic’s eponymous folk song, is precisely what everyone here seeks: for Alton to shine his light on them.
It seems rather fitting for Nichols to take inspiration from such a song. Over the course of four “dust movies,” including “Shotgun Stories” (2007) and “Mud” (2012), he has fashioned himself as something of a grassroots balladeer — albeit one with a penchant for the paranormal, spinning tales of callused heroes and everyday tribulations that unfold far from the paved streets of New York or Los Angeles. In “Take Shelter,” Shannon played a blue-collar father everyone believed to be crazy, stopping just short of revealing the cataclysm he alone had been anticipating for the entire film. “Midnight Special” similarly presents an individual cursed/blessed with the unique power to anticipate the future, only this time, Nichols surrounds him with believers and actually goes as far as to depict the supernatural event Alton had been anticipating.
But even though Nichols chooses to share this exceptional moment with us, risking inevitable disappointment among those who’d imagined something different, the visual effects-heavy sequence raises more questions than it answers (any of which might be considered spoilers): Was Alton an alien, an angel, a more highly evolved human being? Was he going to heaven, another dimension, or perhaps a non-Disney version of Tomorrowland? The explanation is ultimately less important than what Alton’s journey succeeds in illustrating about human nature, demonstrating just how desperately some people want to believe, as well as the various forces — faith for the Ranch brethren, duty in Sevier’s case and family ties for Roy and Sarah — that compel us.
It’s this fundamental human component that ultimately makes “Midnight Special” such a fascinating ride, holding our interest while Nichols refuses to adapt to the breakneck pacing of contemporary thrillers. Though the film takes place in the present, it’s clearly channeling the sort of movies Nichols grew up watching, in which federal agents made a regular habit of ruining an adolescent’s fun (“E.T.’s” walkie-talkie-toting G-men come to mind), and while a PG-13 rating makes the movie accessible to the next generation, it’s their folks who will most appreciate the texture Nichols has woven between the lines and into the background of this most unconventional road movie.