You can’t trust your first impressions in “Midnight Special,” and I mean that in the best possible way.
In a modern movie universe where so many stories are reboots, sequels, retreads or depressingly predictable, it’s refreshing to find yourself immersed in a film that zigs and zags between genres — and occasionally zaps your senses with an electric charge of shock and awe.
With echoes of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and John Carpenter’s “Starman,” and a dash of early M. Night Shyamalan sprinkled in for good measure, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature film (after “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud”) and first major studio production confirms Nichols’ standing as one of the original newer voices in film today.
The great Michael Shannon plays Roy, the father of an 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaden Lieberher), who is the subject of an Amber Alert in Texas. Roy and his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a former state trooper, are roaring down a state highway in a beat-up old Chevy with Alton in the back seat.
Lucas is at the wheel. He wears night-vision goggles so he can turn off the headlights and render the car virtually invisible. Alton wears protective goggles as well — but for entirely different, perhaps supernatural reasons.
We’re not sure if Roy and Lucas are villains who have snatched Alton from a loving mother or some other guardians, or heroes saving him from danger. Meanwhile, the always reliable Sam Shepard shows up in a pivotal extended-cameo role as the leader of cult members who apparently believe Alton is their savior.
Kirsten Dunst gives a fine performance as Sarah, Alton’s mother, who’s not as well-equipped as her estranged husband Roy to handle Alton’s special circumstances, but loves her son nonetheless.
And then there’s Adam Driver as Sevier, an egghead NSA specialist who has been charting Alton’s path and is convinced Alton has something to do with disturbances in satellite communications and national security breaches.
What’s the deal with Alton? Is he from outer space? Is he the Second Coming? Or perhaps he’s a superhero in the making, like a young Clark Kent?
The truth is out there. Actually, it reveals itself at the end of the journey. Nichols wisely doesn’t attempt to answer every single question you might find yourself asking — but he doesn’t leave you hanging, either.
Michael Shannon is such a screen-filling, hulking presence, and his natural fallback expression is so intimidating, it takes a while to warm up to him here as a fiercely devoted father, but Shannon is up to the task and then some. (In one of the film’s quieter and most touching moments, Alton tells his father to stop worrying about him and his dad says that’s never going to happen, and besides, “I kinda like worrying about you.”)
Edgerton’s work is equally impressive. His Lucas seems like your typical loyal sidekick who doesn’t do much thinking on his own and finds himself in over his head — but then Lucas shows us another side.
Adam Stone’s cinematography is beautiful and sharp. Stone does a terrific job of lensing in the dark without keeping us in the dark. The editing by Julie Monroe is crisp and well timed; on at least two occasions, I was genuinely shocked by developments, in great part because of the way the scenes were cut.
The title is not a good one, and the penultimate scene was less than perfect. End of my misgivings about this sharp and enthralling piece of filmmaking.
Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some violence and action). Opens Friday at local theaters.