When Midnight Special starts, TV news reports splash Roy Tomlin's (Michael Shannon) face across the screen. He's wanted for kidnapping eight-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), with the film swiftly showing him and his accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) holed up in a motel with the kid. They're about to leave, but when Roy picks up the goggle-wearing Alton to carry him outside, the boy clings to him lovingly. That's not typical abductor-captive behaviour — and this isn't your typical film.
A host of questions spring up, as audiences find themselves asking who, why and what's really going on. A cult leader (Sam Shepard) gives two men four days to find Alton shortly before FBI agents interrupt his evening sermon. By the time beams of light shine from Alton's eyes, and a storm of fiery space debris showers down upon him, it's clear we're in entirely uncharted territory. That's by design. Midnight Special asks its characters and viewers alike to wonder, but refuses to flesh out too many details or offer up easy solutions.
Indeed, as filmmaker Jeff Nichols tells Roy and Alton's tale — tracking their drive through America's south, picking up Alton's mother (Kirsten Dunst) along the way, and attracting the attention of NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) — he seems to have stolen Fox Mulder's catchphrase. He wants to believe, or, more accurately, he wants to tell tales about people who place their faith in something, in the hope that audiences will too. His three previous features may appear a diverse bunch; however 2007's Shotgun Stories, 2011's Take Shelter and 2012's Mud all focused on figures who chose to trust in a force other than themselves, be it vengeance, apocalyptic dreams or the power of love. Now, with Midnight Special, he veers into science-fiction to explore the conviction that comes from a parent's bond with their child.
It's an ambitious task, but if anyone is up to it, it's Nichols. With a command of visual and emotional storytelling, he crafts a film that's a road movie, chase thriller, intimate drama and otherworldly adventure all in one, yet remains united in tone and mood. Everything from the cinematography to the evocative score feels heartfelt and mysterious. And then there's the pitch-perfect performances, particularly from the filmmaker's continued main man Shannon, who provides yet another quietly haunting portrayal.
Of course, Nichols' latest offering doesn't just follow in his own footsteps, even though he's clearly carving out his own niche. Courtesy of its supernatural narrative, it also conjures up thoughts of '70s and '80s sci-fi fare. Think John Carpenter's Starman and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. A lingering sense of awe emanates from not only the writer-director's material, but from the genre greats that inspire him. It's no surprise that the movie that results proves as enigmatic as it is enchanting, delivering Nichols' fourth knockout in a row.