Jeff Nichols’ new film “Midnight Special” is a solid, fairly well done thriller about what happens when supernatural powers get in the way of family relations. If one leaves feeling underwhelmed, it’s because there is a feeling that it aimed for much more.
The movie centers on a boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who has magical powers, shown in the blue light that shoots from his eyes. He and his father (Michael Shannon) live in a religious cult, and it doesn’t take long for Alton to be taken as a prophet after he predicts that a disaster will take place in a few days. His father, along with a friend, has decided that it is time to take him and escape. Meanwhile, the FBI pursues the trio, demanding to know how Alton was able to receive their heavily encrypted messages. All of these storylines are balanced well, propelling the film through its 110-minute runtime. Nichols, who directed the thrillers “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” is very much in his element.
The movie is crisply shot throughout, with its numerous chase scenes handled very well. The scenes in which Alton uses his powers stand out, making it very clear that Nichols is not just an indie director playing around with sci-fi.
For all of the film’s narrative and technical skill, it does feel thin. The characters are not individualized nearly enough, serving mostly as simple archetypes. This may be to create a sense of mystery, but the stereotypes make the characters too distant for their fates to seem truly important. This is particularly true of the relationship between Alton and his father. We are told that they were mostly separated when living with the cult, but we do not see how this affected them. Their relationship is meant to be the heart of the movie, but it needs more substance.
The acting, working within the limits of the script, is fairly successful. Shannon registers a real compassion for his son, loving him even though he fears his powers. Lieberher plays Alton in a way resembling Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” — there is the same mix of an ordinary, frightened child and his superhuman force.
The movie also seems to be toying with religious and philosophic ideas, but these elements never come together. This is very common among sci-fi films, but here it stands out. The film’s ending suddenly shifts from a conventional thriller to a borderline surrealist art film, but that switch doesn’t feel earned from what came before.
“Midnight Special” is currently playing at local theaters.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21 print edition. Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]