In a Fort Worth motel room, two men and an eight-year-old boy are packing up to move on. We hear a TV news report: a search is underway for the boy, who has been abducted.
But that isn't what's really going on. One of the men, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), is the boy's father; the other is Roy's friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a Texas state trooper. And the boy, whose name is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and who wears strange blue goggles and big noise-blocking headphones, is actually calling the shots here. Alton says there's someplace he has to be in exactly four days, and Roy and Lucas are trying their best to get him there. At the same time, a swarm of FBI agents, a nervous NSA analyst and a pair of end-times religious fundamentalists are doing their best to stop them. It's all pretty strange, and it keeps getting stranger.
With Midnight Special, writer-director Jeff Nichols extends the rural humanism of his Shotgun Stories (2007) and Mud (2012)—both set in Nichols's native Arkansas—in a bid to attract a larger and perhaps more commercially rewarding audience. He already dipped a toe into science fiction with his 2011 doomsday feature Take Shelter. Now he is forthrightly saluting some of his favorite pop-sci-fi films—chiefly Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and John Carpenter's Starman. His focus is still on the characters, who are still beset by everyday real-world troubles (along with alarming new ones). But now there are digital effects, too; and without going overboard, Nichols seems to be having fun with them.
This is not a movie about which a lot can be said without spoiling its carefully paced revelations. It's fair to note that Roy was raised in the fundamentalist sect, and until recently had been living there with Alton, whose mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), fled the group two years earlier after its stern leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), took the boy away from her and Roy in order to rear the child under his own severe tutelage. When an FBI SWAT team swoops into Calvin's remote compound, their chief interest is the growing stockpile of weapons the cult has been amassing. But Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), the NSA analyst who arrives soon after, has another concern: he has discovered that the sermons Calvin has been delivering to his flock contain coded, classified government information. Where's it coming from? "You have no idea what you're dealing with, do you?" says Calvin. He believes Alton is a holy redeemer. Sevier, on the other hand, thinks the boy is some kind of weapon.
While director Nichols peels away the mystery, he also takes time, in characteristic fashion, to focus on the characters' simple human sorrows. Roy and Sarah (who soon rejoins her husband) are distraught at the prospect of losing their child; but they also realize that Alton knows things they don't, and that in order to save him from the malign forces on his trail, they'll have to follow his directions across the Southland toward his mysterious destination.
Shannon (who has featured in all of Nichols's films) and Dunst bring a believable anguish to this aspect of the story—they lend the movie a complex emotional affect. And Lieberher gives a precociously subdued performance as a winningly strange kid whom anyone might feel compelled to follow—even into the fantastical visions that light up the end of the picture.
The movie is not without flaws. The nature of the coded info in Calvin's sermons – and the purpose for which it's intended to be used—is never explained. And it's too bad the minister's apocalyptic sect, and its desert outpost, are given such short shrift—we'd like to know more about what goes on there. But why quibble? Considering the CGI overkill expended on most sc-fi/fantasy films nowadays, this more restrained genre exercise will definitely do.