I was very impressed with writer/director Jeff Nichols' two most recent films, Take Shelter and Mud, so I was slightly torn when I heard he was going to be directing his first studio film. Would this new project retain the qualities that made the aforementioned movies so enjoyable, or would a bigger budget and navigating the complicated landscape of studio filmmaking soften the style I enjoyed so much? Thankfully, Midnight Special is a mostly-satisfying thriller that tells its own story while feeling like a throwback to classic sci-fi movies like Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Starman, and E.T.
Nichols avoids the exposition dump that so often happens in movies like this, instead choosing to drop us into the middle of the action and slowly reveal information about the characters we meet. Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are armed and on the run in a dark motel room with a young boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in tow. They see a news broadcast about Alton's disappearance which pegs Roy as a kidnapper, but we quickly find out that Roy is actually Alton's biological father, and the boy isn't distressed or bothered by their circumstances. Alton just sits quietly, reading comic books through blue swimming goggles with a flashlight and wearing massive headphones when it's time to sleep. There's something strange about him, but it's not until later that we find out what he's capable of. As for how Roy and Lucas know each other and why Lucas is even there, that isn't revealed until deep into the story, finally sating our curiosity about his motivation.
Meanwhile, the FBI raids a compound called The Ranch, where a cult pastor (Sam Shepard) shares sermons that quote dates and coordinates instead of Bible verses. The cult worships Alton, who lived with them for two years and who possesses some extraordinary abilities that the government is extremely interested to examine more closely. Ranch members and government agents — including NSA communications expert Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) — separately set out to find the boy, with only four days until a mysterious prophesied event that could change the world forever. It's a hell of a hook, and the story gradually reveals information about the backstories of the various characters, including Alton's mom, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who hooks up with the guys as they head toward a specific set of coordinates in time for the impending event.
Nichols takes his own road trip through the films of Spielberg and Carpenter, tipping his hat to those titans of the genre and deftly incorporating references to their work that don't ever feel annoying or winking. The look of the movie is always filtered through the director's style and sensibilities — the closest he gets to outright homage is one shot of light emanating from a car that's a clear riff on Close Encounters — and Nichols' contemporaries should take notice of the way he captures the feeling of other films without crossing the line of taking nostalgia too far. The story shares similarities to things like Starman and E.T., but there's enough original world-building and mysterious backstory to unravel that you never get too caught up in the nods. There are also a couple of familiar elements from more recent movie history; I was reminded of Rian Johnson's Looper a couple of times when presented with Alton and his abilities, and there's some imagery in the final act that recalls one of last year's failed would-be blockbusters — to say which one would spoil this film, but you'll instantly know it when you see it. But for the most part, this feels very much like a Jeff Nichols movie.
Shannon, ever the ace up Nichols' sleeve, is understated and authentic as Roy, who is super protective and clearly loves his son, but here's one area where the film's tendency toward mystery results in a hazier characterization than it should. We discover that Roy was once part of the Ranch, but we're never sure whether he really believes in Alton as a savior. He's willing to sacrifice everything for him and he talks a lot about the child's importance, but Shannon plays Roy with so much subtlety that we don't get a full read on his personal beliefs; since faith is one of this movie's major themes, this seems like a pretty egregious shortcoming. Dunst and Driver acquit themselves well in utilitarian roles, and surprisingly it's Edgerton that comes out as one of the most fascinating and fully-formed characters.
By the end, the film veers into territory one could describe as "corny," but David Wingo's towering score keeps us grounded in the emotions of the moment. Still, the climax raises so many unanswered questions that, combined with the litany of purposefully murky character backstories, Midnight Special struck me as a movie that's almost aggressively uninterested in providing a tidy conclusion. It's far more concerned with finding emotional truth in its characters than explaining the consequences of Alton's revelation. It's a little off-putting and feels a little disappointing after the whole story builds up to this moment, but I suppose the ending sort of works as a strange sort of reflection of the beginning: it's a story that feels very much like we're only seeing the most important segment of it, where both the inception and the completion happen off screen.
Midnight Special runs out of steam by the end, but for the most part, it's a riveting, enjoyable thriller that further cements Nichols as a talented filmmaker to keep high on your list of must-watch directors.