Over a black screen we hear reports of a breaking Amber Alert - 8 year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher, "St. Vincent") has been kidnapped and the suspect is Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). We will soon learn that Roy is Alton's real dad and that both the U.S. Government and religious cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) are desperate to get the boy back, each for their own highly secretive purposes, in "Midnight Special."
The fourth film from writer/director Jeff Nichols ("Mud") is being heralded as some kind of second coming of Steven Spielberg. It is certainly intriguing in its early goings, Nichols plunging us into action, then backtracking into his plot, but by its second act we can begin to feel literal reverberations of his "Take Shelter" and by the third, when we know where we're heading, things are all too familiar. There's solid craft in the filmmaking and the cast cannot be faulted, but "Midnight Special" ends up feeling like a come-on with no real payoff.
We meet Alton, wearing blue goggles and reading a Superman comic draped under a sheet like "E.T.", in a motel room whose window's been boarded over, its peephole covered with Duck tape. He's carried out by Ray, another man, Lucas (Joel Edgerton, "Black Mass"), driving the beat up old Chevy Nova. But they've drawn the attention of the news-watching clerk (and Nichols has yanked us out of the film, providing no explanation as to why they'd have parked in such a visible spot).
We then meet Calvin giving Doak (Bill Camp, "Black Mass") the tough task of retrieving the boy - 'We must get him back in time.' As Calvin sermonizes to the faithful of The Ranch, a talk which includes odd strings of numbers, the F.B.I. surrounds the building, bursts in, and informs the group they'll be bussed off site for questioning.
There is a special kind of tension in that Chevy, especially after Lucas and Roy hear their license plate reported on their police radio. Aping Alton, Lucas dons night vision goggles, speeding ahead with headlights out. A moral quandary implies a divide between the two men, yet they remain united, arriving at the home of Elden (David Jensen, "Looper," "Hot Pursuit"), a man Roy apparently knows from The Ranch. It is here we get an intimation of Alton's powers when Elden oversteps his bounds, setting the trio out on the road again.
Back at F.B.I. HQ, NSA data specialist Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) figures out just what those numbers mean and divines where Roy is headed, beginning the two-pronged chase which continues until the film's climax. Nichols fills in more back story along the way, defining the relationship between Roy and Lucas, bringing Alton's mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), into the picture. There are two very fine scenes before the film begins to deflate, one involving a crashing satellite, the other Alton's eerie reveal to Sevier, but Nichols leaves perhaps a bit too much blank space for his audience to fill in. The final sci-fi effects extravangza is all too reminiscent of the letdown of "Tomorrowland's" finale
Lieberher, who has another, smaller film opening on the same day (the more satisfying "The Confirmation"), is an intelligent young actor, capable of empathy, determination and otherworldliness. Shannon doesn't have enough shades to play, but capably fills the shoes of a father full of unconditional love. Ironically, the mystery of Edgerton's character's background makes that actor's performance more compelling. Driver also stands out as the law analyst thrown into wonderment by his close encounter.
Robin gives "Midnight Special" a B-.
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