Having kidnapped his own son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), from a cult compound led by a menacing preacher (Sam Shepard), Roy (Michael Shannon) hides from the authorities in a darkened motel. On some obscure odyssey to a very precise location in the American South, supported only by his estranged friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy is singularly powered by an unwavering conviction. This comes from the mysterious powers of Alton, who emits an unearthly light that transmits visions of some ineffable otherworld. These powers are sought with equal ferocity by a mishmash of bewildered government agencies, informed by NSA geek Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), believing Alton to be a weapon, and The Ranch, the Branch Davidian-esque cult in question, determined to use Alton to bring about a realisation of their strange eschatology.
There's a wonderfully dogged restraint to Midnight Special. Nichols is happy to indulge his '70s blockbuster sci-fi nostalgia, but does so on his own thoughtful terms. Well-measured exposition is granted sparingly, gleaned by a keen audience from terse, cryptic exchanges between characters who all clutch secrets close for their own reasons. The cast is wisely stocked with actors like Shepard, Driver and Nichols' stalwart Shannon, who are able to convey nuance in gestures between the economical lines of dialogue. Lieberher, with perhaps the most difficult role, is able to rise to their level, conveying a precocious sageness in Alton without the usual falsity found in cinema's stereotypical super-powered child.
The deceptively simple cinematography by Adam Stone is as understated as the writing and performances, sedate rather than showy. Impressive use of light, both a thematic and narrative concern, in almost every conceivable fashion, manifests in some fantastic imagery. I haven't seen such splendid work in flashlights and darkness since the Vancouver years of The X-Files.
It comes as disappointing, then, that Midnight Special manages to keep balanced in a sweet spot between mysteriously elliptical and earnestly sentimental for almost all of its running time, before carelessly overplaying its hand with a final reveal. Probably designed as a welcome release for an audience wanting answers, it springs forth rather clumsily and appears as if from a different film than the enigmatic, down-home parable that precedes it. There are grand visuals and a welcome broadening of the narrative into the wider world, after all the claustrophobic darkness, but it scuppers the potential for a deservedly more personal and emotional finale. It's likely that anyone markedly impressed with such a flashy conclusion would have long been undone by the slow pace and obliqueness.
Despite the last faltering step, Midnight Special is profoundly gripping and emotionally satisfying, although there isn't quite the depth to which fans of Nichols might be accustomed to. As in his earlier fantastical film, Take Shelter, he works in themes of fatherhood and faith versus reason. But, unlike Take Shelter's multi-layered buildout, serious movement along these lines halts during third act thrills. With Midnight Special, Nichols seems far more interested in spinning a good yarn, but one spun with all the talent, verve and maturity of the finest New Wave sci-fi to which it harks back.