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A Father Protects His Mysterious Son From Authorities In 'Midnight Special'

<em>Midnight Special</em> is a road movie that centers on 8-year-old Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher), who is being pursued by groups of people who believe him to be an alien visitor or the savior of mankind.
Warner Bros. Picture
Midnight Special is a road movie that centers on 8-year-old Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher), who is being pursued by groups of people who believe him to be an alien visitor or the savior of mankind.

It's standard practice for any talented American director with a flair for spectacle to be hailed as "the next Steven Spielberg," though the competition has become especially heated in recent years.

J.J. Abrams paid tribute to his idol with Super 8, while Colin Trevorrow delivered a soulless nostalgia trip with last summer's Jurassic World. But few filmmakers have aligned themselves with Spielberg in such nervy fashion as Jeff Nichols, whose fourth feature, Midnight Special, means to take us back to such wondrous sci-fi touchstones as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.But Nichols' skillful homage never comes at the expense of his own artistic identity.

There's a lot going on in Midnight Special, but Nichols is a classicist who takes his rhythms from his rural American settings, and he doles out details at a pace that feels urgent yet measured.

Michael Shannon plays a gruff, anxious man named Roy, who's driving across the South under cover of night with his 8-year-old son, Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher), and his old childhood friend, Lucas (played by Joel Edgerton). It's not immediately clear why these three are being pursued by members of a fire-and-brimstone religious cult, or why the FBI and the NSA have joined in the hunt.

One of the many things Nichols gets right is his decision not to spell things out in flashback. Midnight Special is a road movie that never stops moving forward, and it trusts us to follow along, pick up on meaningful details, and see how the past bleeds into the present.

At one point, Alton is reunited with his mother, beautifully and almost wordlessly played by Kirsten Dunst, and we can see years of anxiety and deprivation etched in her careworn face.

The religious leaders and the feds are all trying to get their hands on the boy, who could be an alien visitor, the savior of mankind or a weapon of infinitely destructive force. At first Alton looks like any other introverted, slightly eccentric kid: He spends much of the movie reading under a blanket, his light-sensitive eyes shielded by dark-blue goggles.

Yet we get a sense of the boy's mysterious and terrifying powers in an astounding scene at a gas station, where Roy, making a phone call, leaves him momentarily unattended and the events that follow culminate in fire literally raining down from heaven.

Nichols has a gift for braiding together the mystical and the everyday, as he demonstrated in his powerfully brooding 2011 drama, Take Shelter, which starred Shannon as a man trying to protect his family from malevolent forces only he could see.

Shannon is just as excellent here, again playing a father who will stop at nothing to protect his child. When Alton tells his dad not to worry about him, Roy responds, "I like worrying about you" — words that nail the joy and sorrow of parenthood as well as any line of dialogue in recent memory.

For better or worse, Alton inspires a feeling of protectiveness in everyone he meets. Sam Shepard brings his signature gravity to bear on the role of the cult leader, a more twisted sort of father figure. Two of the most affecting performances come from Edgerton as the loyal Lucas, and from Adam Driver as a straight-laced NSA agent — two rational-minded men who are unexpectedly transformed by their encounters with Alton.

Nichols yearns to transport us to a similar state of childlike wonder, and he almost gets there. After almost two hours of slow and suspenseful buildup, the movie arrives at a climax that casts an undeniable spell, but somehow stops short of fully inspiring our awe. Nichols usually excels at showing rather than telling, but this is one instance where he may have showed us too much.

The movieis far better when it simply taps into the eerie nocturnal poetry of this very strange trip. The most lyrical image shows the high beams on Roy's car shining in the night, a sly reference to the classic folk song from which the movie takes its title: "Let the midnight special/Shine its light on me." Nichols eventually leads us back to daylight, but he knows the pleasure and terror of getting lost in the darkness — whether out on the road, or in the shadows of a movie theater.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.