Whether considered savior or menace or simply the lovable moppet you fathered (and with whom you happen to be escaping into the night), children that can do weird stuff with their brains will always freak you out.
Jeff Nichols knows this. The Austin filmmaker (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) draws on a number of traditions in the canny “Midnight Special.” He’s called it an ode to 1980s chase movies such as “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” but there’s also plenty of ‘80s comic book sensibility (not for nothing do we see Reagan-era issues of “Superman” and “New Teen Titans”) and call-backs to the 1970s meta-human-kid craze (see also the Witch Mountain books and movies).
Two men, Roy, who dressed with his shirt buttoned all the way to the top (Michael Shannon) and Lucas, who looks ex-military (Joel Edgerton). They are in a h=motel with the windows covered in cardboard. According to the TV, they have kidnapped an eight-year old named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Roy’s son, who sits reading comics with blue goggles over his eyes and industrial-grade ear protection. It is time to move, which they can only do at night because of something having to do with Alton. Texas gives way to Louisiana.
They are being hunted by two groups: the religious community from which Roy and Alton escaped (led by Sam Shepherd) called simply “the ranch,” and the government, led by an NSA analyst who is as much fascinated with Alton as dangerous to him (a pitch-perfect Adam Driver).
And oh yeah, now and then, blinding rays of light stream for Alton’s eyes. They can be intensely destructive, but what one sees when his eyes explode is…revelatory. The sort of thing that makes people believe in him. The sort of thing that can bring a satellite crashing to earth.
What is Alton? What is Roy and Lucas’s relationship? Who is Alton’s mother? What does the NSA want with him? Is he a weapon? Is he a messiah?
Like a good student of What Makes These Movies Work, Nichols knows that the question fires the imagination far more than the answer. Less is always, always more in these situations. (This is where the $18 million budget, a very small amount by contemporary blockbuster-type/genre-movie standards, comes in handy — no temptation to fall back on overblown CGI here.)
Nichols’ restraint is on-point, his pacing measured, his withholding of information wise. That said, it is to his lasting credit that the reveals work, that the coda is pitch perfect, that the haunted melancholy is both familiar and welcome. May it find the audience it deserves.