Special powers

An ambitious sci-fi mystery from writer/director Jeff Nichols

Ends tonight, April 21. Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher and Adam Driver. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Cinemark 14. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

A couple of rugged-looking guys are whisking a small boy out of a motel room at daybreak. The room’s windows are papered over, and there’s an Amber Alert in effect. The child is wearing goggles and reading a comic book, and he seems at ease with the two men, one of whom (Roy, played by Michael Shannon) is apparently his father.

The boy’s name is Alton, and Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are trying to deliver him to some mysteriously epochal destination on a particular day that is drawing near. But they are also trying to protect him from the control of a quasi- evangelical cult led by the boy’s adoptive father, the charismatic Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard).

What follows is part chase film, part sci-fi fantasy, part road movie, part spiritual journey. There’s some weirdly pungent social commentary in Midnight Special’s tentative cross-section of mid-American cults and subcultures. And the frame of reference gets even larger, and the stakes even higher, once the FBI and NSA get seriously involved in the chase/search. Ultimately, the spiritual element matters more than the social politics of the chase.

Part of what’s special about these quirky mixtures is that writer-director Jeff Nichols and his actors maintain a gritty sort of everyday realism with the characters and their immediate circumstances. The paranormal elements of the story do require some special effects, but the spiritualized alternate reality evoked in the film resides mainly in the awe and wordless amazement expressed through the story’s most resolutely earthbound characters.

Shannon, whom Nichols has cast in all of his films (including lead roles in Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter), seems central to all that. His Roy is a tortured soul and a man possessed, but marked by demons and heroic potential all at once.

At the same time, Alton, played with an innocent gravity by Jaeden Lieberher, is a credible, living presence in every dimension of the story. He’s a gifted grade-schooler, and he’s a kind of child prophet, endowed with special powers that sometimes seem to have possession of him. At times, he’s simply a nice little boy, and at others, he exudes an exceptional authority that the sympathetic adults around him instantly recognize.

Shepard’s character comes across as a low-key combination of old-school preacher and post-WWII intelligence officer. Edgerton is brusquely effective as a state trooper who goes off duty to help a friend and take on duties of a different order.

Kirsten Dunst is nicely understated in the paradoxical role of Alton’s mother. And Adam Driver, charming and edgy as the geeky investigator from the NSA, tunes into the film’s central concerns from another direction altogether.