Writer/director Jeff Nichols has become a critic's darling by constructing uncompromising portraits of tough men in impossible situations. In the Michael Shannon-fronted thriller "Shotgun Stories," he focused on a fatal feud between half-brothers in rural Arkansas. That was followed by "Take Shelter," in which Shannon played a family man plagued by apocalyptic visions that threatened to not only destroy his marriage but also the world. Next came "Mud," a chilling crime-drama that added edge to the McConaissance with Matthew McConaughey's portrayal of a fascinating fugitive who enlists the help of two naïve kids.
Now, with "Midnight Special," Nichols delivers his most ambitious and mainstream offering yet.
Reteaming Nichols and Shannon, the sci-fi thriller introduces the intense actor as a kidnapper: Amber alerts warn that 8-year-old Alton Meyer (a transcendent Jaeden Lieberher) has been abducted by Roy Tomlin (Shannon with his best blend of on-edge earnestness) as we fade in on the pair in a hotel room, where they're joined by a burly and stern Lucas (an intimidating Joel Edgerton). Immediately, "Midnight Special" is a mystery, demanding its audience discover who these men are, why they've stolen Alton, where they're going, and why they must black out hotel windows and cover the kid's eyes with swimming goggles.
The mystery only deepens as Sam Shepard enters the picture as the leader of a cult called "The Ranch," which believes the boy is its savior. Then in comes the FBI, searching for little Alton over treason charges so severe "they haven't even invented punishments for them yet."
While methodically paced, "Midnight Special" ratchets up the tension with a ticking clock: In four days something is destined to happen. Is it an attack? The Second Coming? The answer lies behind Alton's pale blue eyes, which explode with violent light that can communicate secrets and shake the ground on which he stands.
Nichols has always had a chilling confidence to his craft. His films move slowly but thoughtfully, churning suspense with each silent close-up and each unanswered question. Although this is a studio film, he hasn't left his aesthetic behind, which might prove jarring to mainstream sci-fi fans. The central story of a motley crew rescuing a supernatural outcast from the grasps of government forces recalls movies like "E.T.," "Firestarter" and "Flight of the Navigator." However, "Midnight Special" is art-house Amblin. Nichols sets up a fascinating world rich in details, yet refuses to spoon-feed the audience or fully explore the backdrop. He raises many questions but provides few answers, because this isn't a film about confirmation. It's a film about faith.
Not the faith of the cult, which is driven by fear, but the faith of Roy, Lucas and Roy's wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) have in Alton. It's a faith built on love that opens their eyes to wonders they -- and we -- can't fully comprehend. These flashes of sci-fi wonder are meant to make us marvel and ponder, much like the FBI task force leader Paul Sevier. Shedding both his "Girls"-brand swagger and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" angst, Adam Driver takes on this role as audience surrogate while bringing a bit of welcomed levity as a wide-eyed expert in all things Alton who is nonetheless left at a loss.
"Midnight Special" offers an experimental branch of sci-fi that's not for everyone. This $18 million movie refuses the showiness of its big-budget genre siblings. Rather than wall-to-wall action, the film is merely punctuated by chases and fights. Rather than ceaseless spectacle, Nichols delivers eerie but ambiguous bursts of Alton's abilities. And instead of the big, sappy scenes filled with tears and choked cries of love and devotion, Shannon aims his dark eyes, brimming with intensity, at little Leiberher, and they share a nod that communicates love better than any hokey line of dialogue might.
In short, it's daring, dynamic and demands to be seen.
"Midnight Special" premieres Saturday at SXSW ahead of a March 18 theatrical release.