A boy wearing dark goggles and noise-canceling headphones, his father, and a mysterious driver get into a car and race into the night, perhaps running from something, or maybe in pursuit. Jeff Nichols’s new film Midnight Special is at its best when it keeps things simple: It’s a chase movie set in darkness, with a broken father-son dynamic that’s healing, and a history involving a religious cult that’s left largely unexplained. The weird thing is, the kid in the backseat of the car has glowing eyes, and Midnight Special is a sci-fi film—but you almost wish it wasn’t.
Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher, of Aloha and St. Vincent), is no ordinary kid. He’s Midnight Special’s emotional core and plot MacGuffin wrapped into one whole, a seemingly alien child plagued with all kinds of peculiar powers he can’t control. The film starts in the middle of an escape from the cult he called home, and barrels towards a loopy conclusion as Alton is chased by his former captors and the FBI. Why? We’re not entirely sure, and Nichols is very reluctant to explain, probably because the answers end up being so perfunctory and disappointing. When it’s on the road, Midnight Special is a largely thrilling ride, but whenever it stops to take a breath, the magic stops with it.
Like much of Nichols’s previous work, Midnight Special is set in an earthy American backwater, and co-mingles the mysterious with the mundane. Take Shelter (2011) was a Rust Belt thriller about a raving father plagued by apocalyptic visions he doesn’t fully trust; the more freewheeling Mud (2012) charted the relationship between two boys and a mysterious island dweller on the Arkansas River. Both featured Michael Shannon, the stony Oscar-nominated character actor with a face straight out of the Old Testament, and here he plays Alton’s father Roy, motivated to drive his son across the country by a deep well of unspoken guilt.
Roy is accompanied by Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a mysterious accomplice who’s almost as inscrutable but perhaps a little more confused by just what is going on. Alton is a quiet little gremlin in the back of the car, and he comes with a lot of unspoken rules: Don’t let the sunlight touch him. Don’t worry if he starts parroting radio signals and military code out of nowhere. And if he suddenly stops and looks directly at the sky, run away, because something crazy is about to happen. There are plenty more tricks, and the audience experiences them one by one, but at no point do Roy and Lucas display more than a hint of surprise at the supernatural goings-on around them.
Nichols seems fanatical about eking Alton’s complex backstory out as slowly as possible. Midnight Special keeps its parameters tight: Even as Alton is making satellites crash out of the sky and shooting mysterious blue energy out of his eyes, the focus stays on Roy and Lucas’s mission, to deliver him to an unknown location on the other side of the country, where … well, something will happen, we’re just not sure what.
There are shades of M. Night Shyamalan’s better work in Midnight Special, which focuses on a precocious child amid high-octane genre trappings. There’s more than a touch of Shyamalan’s forebear, Steven Spielberg, too—especially in the story that plays out around Roy, Lucas, and Alton, as the government tries to figure out just what’s so special about this kid, and what’s going to happen when he gets wherever he’s going. Adam Driver plays Paul Sevier, an NSA analyst who feels like an excitable cousin to Francois Truffaut’s extra-terrestrial scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Driver’s nervy energy livens the film up whenever he’s onscreen, always one step behind Alton’s cross-country journey, but helping shed some light on his history for the befuddled audience.
Driver also gets to be funny—something Midnight Special could do with more of. In his promising career so far, Nichols hasn’t leaned on comedy too much, and while this film certainly cribs from Spielberg in some regards, it doesn’t carry over any of his whimsy. Roy is too haunted by past demons and his backstory in the religious cult created around his son, one that’s only marginally fleshed out through some conversations with Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who shows up late in the film and doesn’t get nearly enough to do.
But Midnight Special is a chase movie, and like all chase movies it runs the risk of losing all narrative momentum once it arrives at a destination. Nichols does eventually offer an explanation, of sorts, but you almost wish he hadn’t. He gives his film several tense action scenes (thrilling shootouts, car chases conducted in night vision) executed at a perfect clip, but forgets to invest it with a larger sense of wonder. There’s technical verve a-plenty, and evidence that Nichols will continue to grow with his future projects, but Midnight Special feels more like a fun time at the movies that should have been an otherworldly blast.