A perfect batting average is as rare among directors as it is among baseball players, but Jeff Nichols continues the streak with his fourth feature, following “Shotgun Stories” (2007), “Take Shelter” (2011) and “Mud” (2012). A road movie with echoes of Spielberg in a much darker mode, “Midnight Special” proves—just as “Shelter” did—that in an era when science fiction films have largely degenerated into sophomoric spectacle or kiddie fare, there’s still room for intelligence and a real sense of wonder in the genre.
Nichols demands attention and patience on the part of viewers, building his story cumulatively so that one has to piece the narrative together as its fragments slowly unfold—a technique that poses a quandary of sorts for any reviewer who wants to avoid revealing too much and spoiling the effect Nichol’s so carefully and methodically constructed. It can be said, though, that the film begins with reports of a child abduction: an eight-year old boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) has been taken from The Ranch, a cultish religious compound in Texas, by a rough-looking fellow named Ray Tomlin (Nichols regular Michael Shannon). The leader of the Texas community, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who delivers apocalyptic sermons to his followers, impresses on his lieutenants Levi (Scott Haze) and Doak (Bill Camp) the importance of finding Alton and returning him quickly. Before long, however, federal forces invade the compound and take all its inhabitants in for questioning, and Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a soft-spoken, cerebral representative of the National Security Agency, arrives with some especially pointed inquiries.
Meanwhile Ray and his confederate Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are speeding along highways and back roads—sometimes using night-vision goggles instead of headlights to avoid detection—while the solemn Alton sits in the back seat of the car, reading comic books with the aid of a flashlight and posing queries like “What’s kryptonite?” Eventually the relationship between Ray and the boy will be revealed, as well as their connection to Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), a former member of the cult whom they’re headed to meet. It will also become apparent that Alton is an unusual child in many respects, not least because he has an aversion to sunlight and must wear dark goggles to ward off the light. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Another director might have staged “Midnight Special” at a breakneck pace as the fugitives are pursued by the federal authorities, local cops and Meyer’s underlings. But that isn’t Nichols’ way. Aided by editor Julie Monroe, he pulls off sequences of frightening action—an encounter with a state trooper, an earthquake-like eruption at a nondescript suburban house, a sudden explosion of literally astronomical proportions at an isolated truck stop, a confrontation at a motel followed by a car chase—but they’re situated within a narrative of simmering unease and deepening dread, made all the more unnerving by being presented in a dry, quiet, matter-of-fact style. Nichols uses the simplest of means to create a mood of disorientation (as in an interrogation of Alton by Sevier) almost to the very end.
And that’s where the film slips, opting for a grandiose conclusion that, unlike the eerily ambiguous denouement of “Shelter,” goes on too long and makes things overly explicit. Until then, however, “Midnight Special” is, despite its sometimes glacial pace, a tense, chilling ride that that also manages to be challenging and thought-provoking, with echoes of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” turned on their head. Shannon is essential to the effect, bringing remarkable intensity to Ray while maintaining an attitude of single-minded control. Edgerton draws a strong but not excessive contrast to him as Lucas, while Dunst and Shepard contribute nicely understated turns. In a part that could easily have gone totally false, Lieberher exudes a properly ethereal, vulnerable quality, and Driver is a pleasant surprise as an amiably nerdy guy who proves decidedly, and unexpectedly, open-minded. On the technical side, Chad Keith’s production design meshes well with Adam Stone’s often dark, shadowy widescreen cinematography, and though the effects in the final reel (by Hydraulx, and produced by Eric A. Kohler) are dwelled on too long, it has to be said that they’re well realized (one reason, perhaps, why Nichols chose to employ them to the extent he does). David Wingo’s score is another important factor in setting the picture’s rigorous tone.
But in the final analysis it’s the humanity that distinguishes “Midnight Special” from most of today’s science-fiction films, in which the characters are often little more that cartoon sketches. Here, by contrast, the interpersonal relationships are deeply felt, and one develops a genuine emotional attachment with Ray, Alton and Sarah—and even Lucas and Paul—rather than simply the knee-jerk reactions that a less subtle approach than Nichols’ would invite. And if the denouement is a bit of a disappointment, one has to ask what wouldn’t have been after such an extraordinary lead-up to it.