In Jeff Nichols' gripping domestic thriller Take Shelter, Michael Shannon played a family man convinced that Armageddon was upon us. Until the final seconds, we had no idea if our hero was madman or prophet. It didn't really matter: Nichols' careful suspense-building, along with the film's deeply empathetic performances, proved hypnotic.
Nichols' 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.
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. 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. But as we get more clues and revelations -- beams of light, earthquake-like rumblings, mushroom-cloud-like starbursts -- we may find ourselves yearning for the mysterious drama we were watching earlier.