In Jeff Nichols's gripping domestic thriller Take Shelter, Michael Shannon played a family man convinced that Armageddon was upon us. But even as the character's visions compelled him to take more and more extreme precautions, the film remained fixed in the world of the real. It was a portrait of a disturbed psyche and a troubled family; until the final seconds, we had no idea if our hero was madman or prophet. It didn't really matter: Nichols's attention to detail and careful suspense-building, along with the film's deeply empathetic performances, proved hypnotic.
Nichols's new film, Midnight Special, creeps further into science-fiction territory: It's a thriller about a father (Michael Shannon) and mother (Kirsten Dunst) trying to protect a son (Jaeden Lieberher), who has mysterious powers, from both governmental forces and a violent cult. When it works, it works in the same way that Take Shelter did — by grounding its drama in recognizable, mundane reality and minimizing the paranormal histrionics. Nichols has a light touch when it comes to genre, which is Midnight Special's great blessing and curse.
At first, we don't even really know what kind of film we're watching. An AMBER Alert on TV announces that authorities are looking for Alton Meyer (Lieberher), an eight-year-old who's been abducted by a man — supposedly armed and dangerous — named Roy Tomlin (Shannon). We then see Tomlin and another man, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), hovering over the boy in a dingy motel room. The kid is covered in a sheet and wearing headphones and goggles. He's reading a comic book. Is this a kidnapping?
Not quite. We soon learn that Roy is Alton's birth father and that he's snatched back his son from the Third Heaven Ranch, a fundamentalist cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard, mostly wasted), the boy's adoptive father. The Ranch wants Alton back: They consider him some kind of prophet because he has fits, speaks in tongues and issues predictions. The Feds are also after him, as it turns out that the number combinations and words that the boy has been unknowingly spouting correlate to highly sensitive information. Revealing such things, says NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, doing a pretty good Jeff Goldblum), carries "punishments of treason so severe the government probably hasn't invented them yet."
Traveling from Texas to Florida by night, Roy, Lucas and Sarah (Dunst) have been told by Alton himself that they must take him to a specific place on a specific day. They don't know why; neither, at first, does Alton. The film keeps us guessing for a while as to what, exactly, this child is. Messiah? Alien? Demon? A government experiment gone wrong? Initially, Nichols reveals his story's fantastical elements in drips and drabs. He's more interested in character and setting than in wowing us with plot reveals. He has a feel for the dark highways, lone gas stations and modest interiors of this world, and for the desperation of characters who don't quite know what they're dealing with but know what they must do.
The most impressive parts of Midnight Special center on the parents' dilemma. They love Alton dearly, and are both determined and torn about their mission. Their boy won't be with them for much longer, and they know they have to get him to his mysterious appointment. Shannon and Dunst can give us volumes in a glance, and Nichols uses them well — he keeps them silent, he keeps them moving. When they look at Alton, we sense their fear and heartbreak. In Shannon's performances, tenderness and menace remain locked in eternal combat. Here, as a protective father on the run from the law and other forces, he lets that battle play out on his face and body. His physique is imposing yet cavernous; you can never quite tell if he's about to rip somebody to shreds or crumple like a rag doll.
Midnight Special is exceptionally well-acted, and often quite gripping and sad. But Nichols can't play coy to the extent that he did in Take Shelter, where he made the issue of his protagonist's mental health largely irrelevant. Here, at least some of the Big Questions have to be answered before the very end, because everyone cares too much about Alton and his powers for him to remain a mere MacGuffin. But as we get more clues and revelations — beams of light, earthquake-like rumblings, mushroom-cloud-like starbursts — the film seems to lose something. It becomes less about the anxiety of a parent over the future of his child and more about hairbreadth escapes and supernatural occurrences. By the time Midnight Special goes full closing-minutes-of-The-Abyss on us, we may find ourselves yearning for the mysterious drama we were watching earlier.