From his first feature, the powerful clan tragedy Shotgun Stories (2007), the writer-director Jeff Nichols has shown a knack for crafty storytelling and the occasional tendency to go off the rails for the big finale, especially in Take Shelter and his newest, most audience friendly film, Midnight Special. Sensitive to the fine particulars — weathered dwellings, farms, pickup trucks — of his rural settings, he also appears to have a genuine belief in the supernatural — if not in religious prophecy, than in individuals who see what others can’t. The lyrics of the song from which Nichols takes his title are no accident: “Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me.”
The light comes from an 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who seems to have special powers — at least in the eyes of a religious commune that has adopted him, and of his father, Roy (Nichols regular Michael Shannon), who steals Alton back. The film opens with an “Amber Alert” detailing that kidnapping, and with the furtive, nocturnal trek of Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a cop who has thrown in his lot with Roy come hell, high water, or, preferably, heaven. Alton, hooded, sits in the back, reading by flashlight a Superman comic book.
The opening is small-scale, which is Nichols’s secret — to move, step by step, from the tightly focused to, in this case, the cosmic. I won’t tell you if Alton is, indeed, a midnight special. The point is that these people believe in him and that the boy — with his habit of speaking in tongues, his ultra-sensitivity to light, and his tendency to cause ruptures in the space-time continuum — gives them reason to. Where Shannon’s Take Shelter prepper seemed off his gourd, his Roy is firmly grounded: At very least, he’s a dad bent on liberating his son from a religious cult with a leader (Sam Shepard) who’s certain the end is nigh. What holds Midnight Special together — what keeps you on edge, even when the prospect of a woo-woo finale looms — is the imperative of Roy, his semi-estranged wife (Kirsten Dunst), and Lucas, to keep the child alive.
Parts of Midnight Special are frankly Spielbergian, beginning with a federal agent named Sevier (Adam Driver) who’s convinced that there is, indeed, something unique about Alton. Possibly that something is very bad, which would not be too Spielbergian, War of the Worlds remake notwithstanding. But Sevier’s mind is open, and Driver proves again what an unusual and likable actor he is, abstracted in ways that suggest hopefulness. His Sevier wants to believe in something higher than the values of the agents who surround him. He wants to be Roy (or at least Claude Lacombe) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Nichols’s mythic aspirations are still a puzzle to me; I’m not sure he has connected all the dots in his psyche yet, or that he fully brings off his finale. But I love watching his movies. Here, the image of the little boy with his hood, headphones, and purple dark glasses reading a Superman comic is a statement in itself: Alton is like a weird projection of Gen-X comic-book and movie geeks who are now fearful parents — scared for their kids, scared about climate change, dreaming of worlds elsewhere.