They ride by night on back roads through the South in “Midnight Special,” two grim-faced men in the front seat of a battered old car. Men with guns, watching warily. In the back seat is a strange, quiet boy of 8, wearing goggles.
How strange becomes apparent eventually. The goggles are a clue. When they’re removed, weirdness happens. Unearthly weirdness.
The weirdness is the reason these three are on the run, through the night, pursued by formidable forces.
What, exactly, is going on here? Who are these people? Who’s pursuing them, and why?
Questions writer-director Jeff Nichols takes his time answering.
The three in the car are in a hurry, but Nichols (“Mud”) sets a deliberate pace. Keeping his narrative cards close to the vest, he carefully conjures up a mood of paranoia, of a world where events are closing in and paths of escape are being closed off.
The picture is a long tease, artfully constructed. Mood is all-important, and it’s a mood designed to keep the audience off balance and on edge until the very end.
The acting is first-rate, with Michael Shannon giving a standout performance as the haunted, protective and much-mystified dad, Roy. The mysterious abilities of his son baffle him, but his determination to shield young Alton from harm is fierce.
Joel Edgerton plays the other man in the car, the father’s longtime best friend who is good with a gun. He’s worried Roy’s single-minded dedication to his son’s safety may actually be causing the boy harm. The longer they’re on the run, the sicker Alton becomes.
In the role of the kid, Jaeden Lieberher again displays the poise and sense of preternatural calm and intelligence that made him so compellingly watchable in 2014’s “St. Vincent” and the recently released “The Confirmation.”
Fine work is also done by Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s anxious mother, Adam Driver as a government agent intrigued by the boy’s abilities and Sam Shepard as the leader of a fundamentalist cult from whom Roy and Alton have escaped.
The picture is reminiscent of “The X-Files” in its heyday. Although there’s no overt connection between that sci-fi series and this movie, they’re spiritual soul mates. The truth, gradually revealed, is out there. Way out there.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2 (out of 4)
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver.
Writer, director: Jeff Nichols.
Running time: 111 minutes.
Rated: PG-13 for some violence and action.