Readers afflicted with extreme spoiler sensitivity may want to cover their ears and start humming right now, since even the vaguest, most careful description of Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” risks giving away some important surprises. This is a film that generates much of its suspense through genre sleight of hand. If I even try to tell you what kind of movie it is — crime story, road picture, science-fiction allegory, religious prophecy — I might be telling you something you’d rather not know just yet.
The music that plays over the end credits gives the trickiness a final flourish. It’s an updated cover of the song (most famously recorded by Lead Belly) that inspired the title. You may well wonder what that old, defiant prison ballad has to do with what you just saw. I have some thoughts on the subject. The Midnight Special in the song is, strictly speaking, a train, but it’s also a symbol of redemption, one of many that decorate the many-colored garment of American folklore.
Nichols, a writer and director of three previous features, has a sincere interest in the traditions of American spirituality, including its wilder manifestations. He is also willing to entertain — and to entertain his audience with — the possibility that the zealots and crackpots may be onto something. In his second feature, “Take Shelter,” (2011) Michael Shannon played a hardworking family man plagued by forebodings of cosmic catastrophe. The movie spun a web of anxiety and ambiguity around the question of whether he was delusional or clairvoyant.
Shannon — whose broad forehead, squinting eyes and hard-set jaw are as essential to Nichols’ imagination as shotguns and pickup trucks — shows up in “Midnight Special” as one of a pair of outlaws who have recently kidnapped a child. Or so it appears. Though Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are grim-faced, heavily armed and unnervingly competent, their victim, a boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), doesn’t seem afraid of them, and indeed acts more like an accomplice than like prey.
The scene shifts quickly to a religious compound that sets off another, equally misleading set of associations. Here is a stern patriarch (Sam Shepard) flanked by goons in bad suits. Here are platoons of women with long plaited hair and long homespun dresses. Here is the FBI, coming in heavy. We might assume that we’re in the territory of the Branch Davidians or a polygamous quasi-Mormon sect. It seems possible that Alton, who was taken from their midst, was not abducted but rescued.
As it turns out — and here the spoiler siren starts to wail in earnest — he isn’t a member of the flock at all, but rather its godhead. You get that impression looking into his eyes, especially when tractor beams of bright blue radiance shoot out of them like bolts from Harry Potter’s wand. His gaze has the power to set walls, grown men and the earth itself atremble.
Roy, we learn, is Alton’s father, and Lucas is an old buddy of Roy’s who has literally seen the light. The boy’s disappearance becomes less a matter of religious freedom and pastoral authority than of national security, as a geeky National Security Agency operative (Adam Driver) takes over the case from the law enforcement guys. The boy somehow has access to top-secret codes and coordinates. He becomes a human GPS, tracing a zigzagging route along the picturesque back roads of Texas and Louisiana and pausing to visit his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and to pull a satellite out of the sky into a parking lot.
Who is this kid supposed to be? Jesus? E.T.? Clark Kent? Edward Snowden? Nichols, whose fondness for high-stakes boys-adventure stories was especially evident in the Mark Twain-inflected “Mud” (2013), plays with various allusions and possibilities. He doesn’t overdo the self-consciousness, but he knows that the audience has a soft spot for unusual children, whose aura of innocence is a screen for otherworldly powers. Alton could be a boy genius or a musical prodigy. The adults in his life fear for his safety and are also a little afraid of him, and their desire to protect him is mingled with the urge to exploit his gifts.
Alton has just been introduced to comic books, which he pores over with scholarly intensity as if they were works of reference rather than fantasy. And in comics, anything can happen. The rules of space, time and narrative order can be redrafted at will, as long as the writers and inkers stay on the right side of the line that separates chaos from coherence. Nichols has an efficient, naturalistic style. His movies look and sound like Sundance-sourced exercises in regional realism, and he is sensitive to the nuances of feeling that infuse even the strangest circumstances, and also the most ordinary.
At its heart, “Midnight Special” is a parable of parental love, a heartfelt look at the challenges involved in loving and possibly losing an extraordinary child. “I like worrying about you,” Roy says to Alton at an especially grave and touching moment, and his words are a beautiful and concise summary of a common emotion. The context in which they occur is completely outlandish, and the charm and audacity of this film lie in the way it blends the commonplace and the bizarre.
My only real quarrel is with the blandness of the bizarre stuff. What is meant to be a dazzling climax looks a little too much like images pulled from an advertiser’s dream board. Sometimes the best move for a visionary is to keep the visions out of sight. And the surest way to arouse a sense of wonder is to leave us with something to wonder about.