It’s natural for parents to think their children are uniquely gifted. Who hasn’t wondered if that art project or science fair ribbon is evidence of a prodigy in the house? But when Junior starts shooting laser beams out of his eyes, there may be cause for alarm.
Little Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has that ability, among several others, in Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special.” Technically, this is a science fiction film, but if those plot elements were removed, it would work just as well as a smart, tense backroads thriller.
Alton has spent his eight years in the care of a cult, treated as a prophet by its leader (Sam Shepard), who has “adopted” the boy from his parents, Roy and Sarah (Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst). The seemingly random information Alton recites turns out to have national security implications, which puts him on the FBI’s radar. Meanwhile, he is becoming sick and weak, and the only apparent hope is to get him to a specific location by a certain date. No one — not even Alton — knows why.
Desperate, Roy grabs his son and hits the road, receiving help from Sarah as well as a childhood friend (Joel Edgerton) and a troubled ex-cult member (David Jensen). Gradually, their purpose becomes clearer, even drawing the sympathy of an NSA analyst (Adam Driver) in whom Alton takes an interest.
Nothing in “Midnight Special” (named for the prison ballad) is ever completely clear, though. And Nichols’ decision not to answer obvious questions is both refreshing and frustrating. What, exactly, is Alton? How did he get this way? What’s the story behind this religious movement? What the heck is going on at the end? Don’t expect to find out.
Fans of “Take Shelter,” Nichols’ 2011 sleeper hit, will not be surprised by this ambiguity, or by the writer/director’s skill at combining apocalyptic dread with family drama. Shannon has been Nichols’ muse for years, and his haggard, haunted intensity was made for this. Not that anyone is slacking (Lieberher, who played the boy in “St. Vincent,” is a real find), but Roy is the emotional heart of the story.
Although it’s not as thought-provoking as recent sci-fi masterpieces like “Ex Machina” or “Moon,” “Midnight Special” is odd enough to keep you guessing and exciting enough to keep you engaged. If it’s confusing at times, that’s all right. The uniquely gifted usually are.
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:52.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols, 37, has been quietly building a rep with acclaimed little independent films. How little? “Midnight Special’s” $23 million production budget exceeds the costs of the other films put together, by millions. In case you missed his previous efforts:
▪ “Shotgun Stories” (2008): The rivalry among the seven sons of an Arkansas patriarch turns into a blood feud upon his death.
▪ “Take Shelter” (2011): A hardworking family man (Michael Shannon) is convinced an apocalyptic storm is on the way. Maybe he’s right.
▪ “Mud” (2014): A troubled boy seeks help from a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) on an island in the Mississippi River.
Coming in November: “Loving,” the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (“Midnight Special” co-star Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), who challenged Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.
Sharon Hoffmann, email@example.com