You’re going to hear people talking shit about Jeff Nichols’ unforgettable and unclassifiable Midnight Special. The alien element will bring lazy comparisons to other cinematic close encounters; John Carpenter’s Starman resonates most in theme and careful pacing. But Nichols is his own man. And in this spellbinding sci-fi chase movie, UFOs take a back seat to identifiable human emotions. Go with it. Let Nichols turn your head around. He sure as hell will. One caveat: Nichols drops you into the action, no backstory road map. What you see is what you get. Luckily, what you get is extraordinary.
We do know this much: A divorced father, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), has kidnapped his eight-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), with the help of old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Now the cops are chasing them across Texas. Alton’s mom, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), also wants her son back, and away from Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the preacher leader of a Waco-like cult called the Ranch, which once counted Roy and Sarah among its flock. So much so that they let Calvin adopt Alton two years earlier.
What’s so special about the kid? Well, when Alton takes off his sunglasses, a white light beams out of his eyes. Calvin claims that Alton can speak in tongues, gibberish that Calvin uses in his sermons. Others, like NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), think Alton is dangerous. That light in his eyes can knock a satellite out of orbit and bring it crashing to Earth. As for Alton, he only wants his birth parents to take him to a destination that will decide his fate.
That’s the framework on which Nichols builds his mesmerizer of a movie. With only four films, the Arkansas-born Nichols, 37, already ranks with the best American directors of his generation. His indie films have always tilted reality in various degrees. Shotgun Stories (2007) concerns a family haunted by an unseen father; Take Shelter (2011) turns on a father who foresees the end of the world; Mud (2012) examines a surrogate father and a boat mysteriously suspended in a tree.
Notice a theme here? Midnight Special may be Nichols’ first studio film, but he’s still tracking lives out of balance. This time, Shannon‚ who has appeared in every Nichols film, plays a father in crisis. Guilt-ridden over giving Alton to the Ranch, he must now trust his son’s plea to be delivered into the custody of something unknown, even alien.
Shannon’s award-caliber performance hits like a shot to the heart. Dunst, revelatory in Fargo last season, nails every nuance as the mother whose pain goes beyond words. And Edgerton is aces as a state trooper who risks his career for the wonders he sees in Alton. We see them, too, thanks to Lieberher, who is remarkable as the dying boy looking for miraculous deliverance. Nichols brings out the bells and whistles for the big UFO finale. But the bruised soul of Midnight Special is found in ordinary people, driven by love, seeking redemption at the end of a line they’re never sure they’ll reach.