The first 15 minutes of Midnight Special come on like gangbusters — a bracing start to a road movie in which the final destination is unknown. Two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) are on the run from the law, wanted for the supposed kidnapping of an 8-year-old boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). We ride in a car with the fugitives and their supposed captive, who is sitting in the back seat reading comic books as they barrel down the highway, trying — but not always succeeding — to avoid the police.
Meanwhile, the leader (Sam Shepard) of a religious cult at the Texas ranch where the boy was taken tells his followers Alton needs to brought back within four days, which will be “in time” for something. An FBI agent (Paul Sparks) and an NSA officer (Adam Driver) are also on the case, investigating why so many people are interested in this seemingly ordinary kid. Is he some sort of savior? A messiah? A weapon? Is he something else entirely?
Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed Midnight Special, doesn’t keep us guessing for long. There is definitely something extraordinary about Alton, who wears headphones to drown out the radio and satellite transmissions he hears in his head and uses swimming goggles to control the beams of blinding light that shoot out of his eyes whenever he is agitated or upset. But who (or what) Alton is and why so many people are in a hurry to find him are questions the movie teases out slowly, like a fisherman casting a line. Nichols hooks the viewer immediately, then takes his time reeling us in.
Midnight Special is Nichols’ fourth movie, and like his previous pictures (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud), it is steeped in Americana — pay phones, highways, back roads, motel rooms. The film wears its influences proudly, most notably early Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) but also, crucially, John Carpenter’s Starman. This is a work of genre, but it radiates an analog, old-school vibe: The special effects are mostly optical instead of digital, and the violence — be it gunplay or vehicular mayhem — feels real and brutal without being needlessly graphic.
Nichols plays with the audience, keeping us slightly off-balance. The story is set in the present day, but aside from the occasional cellphone or computer screen, it could have taken place 30 years ago. And in an era in which studios market their product so aggressively that trailers spoil every secret and twist in the movies they’re selling, Midnight Special contains a couple of jaw-dropping moments (including a stunning, frightening sequence set at a gas station) that deliver something too often missing from Hollywood films: genuine surprise.
The buildup is so well done, and Nichols is so good at trusting the viewer to fill in the details as the film hurtles forward, that the second half of Midnight Special feels particularly disappointing. You watch helplessly as the movie goes off the rails, the suspense and excitement leaking out of the enormous tension the early scenes had generated. For every question the movie answers, two more take its place. Nichols’ decision to allow the theme of parenting to carry the film backfires: The joys and sorrows of fatherhood are the last thing on your mind during the climactic 20 minutes.
The ensemble cast is strong. Lieberher anchors the movie with his portrayal of this odd but always likable boy — he’s scary, but you don’t want to see any harm befall him — and Driver does wonders with the stock role of the investigating government agent (he uses his entire body in every scene, whether he’s flashing a security badge or cautiously approaching his subject during an interrogation). Shannon, who has acted in all of Nichols’ previous movies, wisely chooses to underplay his role of the kidnapper, even during moments when his character could understandably freak out a little.
But none of them (including Kirsten Dunst as Shannon’s wife) can overcome the issues of plausibility and logic that eat away at Midnight Special until there’s nothing left but nonsense. One question in particular hangs heavily over the entire film, a plot hole so distracting it becomes the only thing you can think about. Nichols purposely withholds the answer until the film’s final shot (you have to be watching closely), but by that point, most people won’t care.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Paul Sparks, Sam Shepard.
Writer-director: Jeff Nichols.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 112 minutes. Violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.