112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
There is almost no element of “Midnight Special” that hasn’t been already thoroughly mined by other science fiction/fantasy films over the last 40 or so years.
And yet through some sort of cinema alchemy writer/director Jeff Nichols makes it all fresh and compelling.
Nichols is the Arkansas auteur of oddball down-home dramas like “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud.” Here he ventures into full-blown genre moviemaking, and for the most part sucks us in and leaves us wanting even more.
The film begins with three individuals on the run. Roy (Michael Shannon), his eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, the scene-stealing kid from “St. Vincent”), and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are making their way across Texas and into Louisiana in a beat-up car that has more Bondo than paint.
Alton is a strange kid who sits in the back seat wearing sound-damping headphones and blue swimming goggles. Since they travel only at night he uses a flashlight to read a stack of comic books.
Turns out the trio are the object of a massive manhunt, not only by the feds (FBI, CIA, whatever else you got) but by the members of a Texas religious cult with whom Elton has lived for the last two years.
Apparently the kid has had visions which have now become as much a part of the sect as the shapeless sisterwife dresses worn by their womenfolk. Incensed that Elton’s dad has snatched him up, the cult leader (Sam Shepherd) dispatches a couple of heavily-armed members of the congregation (Bill Camp, Scott Haze) to recover the boy in the few days remaining before a prophesized day of judgment.
Nichols’ strength as a storyteller is that he doesn’t drop too much up front. His films are voyages of discovery in which audiences pick up the characters’ backgrounds and info about the plot in dribs and drabs.