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There were no answers at the end of Take Shelter, the film that introduced writer-director Jeff Nichols to the world. Nor were there many explanations throughout. Yet the film gave just enough suggestion, had just enough heft, to keep you invested and satisfied with its question-mark close.
Nichols’ new film, Midnight Special, both offers and accomplishes less. A story about a man and his otherworldly son on the run, Midnight Special hints at Take Shelter creepiness, and though it occasionally delivers it, Nichols fails these moments by leaving them ultimately inconsequential.
At the beginning of the film, Roy (Michael Shannon) has already rescued Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from “the ranch,” a group of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints-evoking religious extremists. There, Alton had been under the care of his adoptive father (Sam Shepard), who is head of the church. Roy had grown up in the church, too, and the preacher tells an investigator that Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) had “abandoned” her son. It’s unclear why Alton had been taken from Roy, though it’s likely that he had left the ranch himself. But the church wants Alton back.
Helping them escape is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), whose connection to Roy is unknown until midfilm; they were childhood friends until Roy had been moved to the ranch. Still, when Lucas says things such as “I’m doing it for the boy,” his devotion is curious. The kidnapping case becomes a federal investigation, and because Alton has the capability of transmitting long strings of numbers that end up being government coordinates—and not “the words of the Lord” as the preacher insists—the feds have a good idea of where they’re going.
So, Alton. He’s unique. He can rattle off a DJ’s prattle when the radio’s not even on, and when apparent lasers shoot of his eyes, the world rocks. They damage other people and property and usually cause him pain, particularly when he has no control over it. But when he homes in on someone willing, he shows them things—or, rather, provides a feeling, what his mother describes as “comfort.” Never mind that these connections, as we see in the film, destroy a house and take down an Air Force satellite while Alton’s at it.
Despite the chase and mystery of why Alton has these powers, most of Midnight Special remains low-key. Shannon practically fades into the background while Edgerton is the one you watch, perpetually questioning what’s in it for him. Adam Driver, too, as an FBI investigator, offers some light laughs and plays the film’s main insight. But Lieberher is no Jacob Tremblay. Unlike Room’s wee star, Lieberher is too wooden and robotic here, even for a character who might be alien. Light emitting from his eyes and hands do most of the role’s heavy-lifting; whenever Alton interacts with anyone besides his parents, Lieberher’s attempt to appear as if from another, more developed plane is more often flat and borderline silly than foreboding.
Furthermore, the big reveal is rendered not so big because Alton tells his parents and Lucas the gist beforehand (and even then, it’s a big “So what?”). The grand set piece at the end is somewhat ridiculous when you consider what it really is, and it all amounts to dramatic disappointment. Near the finale, Roy says, “The only thing I ever believed in was Alton.” The question you’re left with is why.
Midnight Special opens Friday at Angelika Film Center, Landmark E Street Cinema, and AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.