Writer-director Jeff Nichols reteams with Michael Shannon and a catalog of other impressive talent to drive his first studio production, and his most overtly supernatural movie yet, Midnight Special, a chase thriller that sees Shannon and buddy Joel Edgerton on the run from feds and Christian cultists in the American South after kidnapping a boy with telekinetic powers. We’re caught up in the breakneck speed of their flight across Texas from the get-go, watching the shadow of their junkyard orphan Chevrolet Chevelle growl down country roads without lights, relying on night vision to steer. It’s also Nichols’ fastest paced movie, and given the reams of mystery stirred up by anyone who’s encountered the young kidnapee, Nichols accidentally outruns his own story, leaving pages eddying in Shannon and Edgerton’s wake, though the energy with which he does it is enough to distract you from thinking too hard about any stones unturned.
The central mystery is in fitting with Nichols’ previous work, embodying his one-of-a-kind brand of Bible Belt mysticism butting up against the seedy, tobacco-stained realities of petty living and desperate crime, but this time blown up tenfold, the mysticism achieving heights of frightening plausibility and the crime aiming for Waco-sized infamy. Without spoiling too much, it’s pretty obvious that the boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), is Shannon’s son, and while Shannon’s Roy seems to have a better grasp on what’s going on with his son than the cult from which he rescued him, the questions continue to pile up from all sides as a regularly dumbfounded Edgerton leans on the throttle to get them the hell out of Dodge.
This is the type of movie where people only ever mention “the place” or “where we’re going” as if government bugs are implanted under their very tongues. While we wait to learn the significance of their destination, we hope to learn more about the cult’s obsession with Alton and the government’s reason for hunting him down. But the movie frustratingly rests on its own vagaries, shifting its villains mid-plot and focusing on character beats that, effective as they are, prevent us from forming a complete picture of Alton’s use to the cult – and their version of an impending doomsday – as Nichols chooses to pursue a single theory about the boy’s origin.
This leads to Sam Shepard getting particularly shortchanged as Calvin Meyer, the leader of the cult and Alton’s adoptive father. When Paul Sparks’ FBI agent crashes his compound mid-sermon before the first act has hardly begun, we’ve already seen half of Shepard’s scenes. And while nowadays it’s hard to argue against more scenes featuring Adam Driver, the moment his gumpy government analyst arrives he adopts the antagonist role, which pretty much drops Shepard and his cult, and any lingering mysticism, off the map in favor of straight sci-fi. Even the welcome appearance of Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother and Roy’s estranged wife feels redundant, giving us a second concerned parent where one worked just fine, but yet again, by dint of being Kirsten Dunst, she helps make up for the answers her appearance circumvents.
Backstory frustrations aside, Nichols doesn’t disappoint with the immediate action, and provides at least a couple startling glimpses of Alton’s powers before he’s hardly spoken a word. These freakish moments counteract the movie’s melancholy tone, which lulls us into a nervous state of reprieve with its tinkling piano and deep bass score and its impressive lineup of hangdog faces. Mood is Nichols’ saving grace in a movie that features some classically dopey details, from trying to hide in the dark while going 100+ miles per hour in a souped up muscle car to something bad happening every time people take their eyes off the precocious kid. Lots of people detect the ghost of the 80’s-era government conspiracy sci-fi in Midnight Special, too, which has offered admirable comparisons to the likes of Spielberg and Carpenter. Nichols’ latest may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but it cuts loose against its own somberness, giving us the primal thrill of the chase when it struggles to maintain a sense of mystery.