In Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ successor to Mud and Take Shelter, the writer-director takes a whack at old-school sci-fi movies of the Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind variety. But instead of piling on razzle-dazzle special effects or a gee-whiz sense of wonder, he keeps the mood low-key and the milieu mostly confined to middle-of-the-night abductions, grimy motels, truck stops and back roads while trying to ratchet up the tension and drill down on the emotion. That MO makes for a more grounded, realistic movie experience, if a less wish-fulfillment satisfactory one.
Midnight Special is a paranoid chase-and-pursuit thriller built around an 8-year-old boy (Jaeden Lieberher, terrific) who speaks in tongues, is so light sensitive he can only read comic books by flashlight while wearing deep blue goggles and has been born with some sort of supernatural or extraterrestrial powers, for which he suffers throughout. The boy’s emotionally spent father (Michael Shannon, so good again) and a state-trooper friend (Joel Edgerton) take him on the run to save him from two competing sets of bad guys out to exploit and control him. There’s a chillingly efficient, gun-happy cult called the Ranch, run by Sam Shepard, and then there’s the long, long arm of Evil Government personified by Adam Driver, in the Jeff Goldlum-type role of a quirky NSA agent. Traversing the Bible Belt, the boy’s estranged, troubled mother (Kirsten Dunst, weary, washed-out) figures into the action; she, like Shannon, will do anything in her power to shield her kid without really understanding him or knowing how to save him.
Nichols is an ace at casting and at giving actors interesting stuff to do. He and his collaborators have made an emotionally and visually grabby feast. It’s a mark of the movie’s intelligence that, even after a wow fantasy finale, questions linger. Is the boy an alien? A spirit? A more advanced and evolved form of being? Whoever, whatever he is, Midnight Special is a slow burner—tense, somber and very sad.