Midnight Special begins in the middle of the night, with Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) peers nervously out the window, surveying the parking lot for any signs of trouble while Lucas (Joel Edgerton) paces in the background. The coast is clear, so they bundle up 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) – clad in blue swim goggles and noise-cancelling headphones – and usher him through the shadows and into a waiting vehicle, disappearing onto the less-traveled country roads of South Texas.
Meanwhile, parishioners of a religious community known as The Ranch gather for an evening sermon with leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), but just as he begins to preach the doors of the church burst open to a swarm of federal agents. Over the course of numerous interrogations, we begin to piece a few things together: the missing Alton is Calvin’s adopted son, the content of his sermons are taken from the strange things the boy would recite during frequent “fits,” and Tomlin is actually the boy’s biological father, who was also raised as a member of The Ranch.
The federal government is keenly interested in Alton for a number of reasons, and they employ every resource at their disposal in an effort to locate the boy, even bringing in NSA operations analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) to assist the FBI. But Calvin and his flock also need to see the boy returned in order to fulfill whatever doomsday prophecy they’ve been prepping for, so he dispatches two of his most trusted – and heavily armed – advisors to retrieve the child by any means necessary.
The fourth feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special carefully balances its fantastical elements with human relationships that seem honest and genuine. As the boy’s father, Shannon sheds his typically gruff demeanor for a quieter, more tender approach that is no less intense than the other characters he’s portrayed, and Edgerton is believable as Tomlin’s childhood friend, the kind of guy you would call up out of the blue if you ever needed help. Kirsten Dunst also shows up around the halfway point as Alton’s mother, who fled The Ranch sometimes after the boy was taken into Calvin’s care.
Obviously inspired by sci-fi classics like Starman, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Nichols very clearly subscribes to the “show, don’t tell” school of filmmaking. Special effects are used sparingly until the third act, making each of these moments far more impactful, and even during the stunning CG-laden climax nothing ever feels gratuitous. Nichols also leaves plenty of questions unanswered – both specific and philosophical – but Midnight Special contains more than enough breadcrumbs for audiences to piece together their own theories. With its empathetic and identifiable characters and measured blend of supernatural wonder, this Spielberg-inspired homage to the fondly-remembered films of our youth is destined to be regarded as a masterpiece.