Less is so much more in ‘Midnight Special’

This just in: Children with superpowers are always terrifying.

Jeff Nichols knows this. The filmmaker (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) draws on a number of traditions in the canny “Midnight Special.” He’s called it an ode to 1980s chase movies such as “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but there’s also plenty of 1980s comic book sensibility (not for nothing do we see Reagan-era issues of “Superman” and “New Teen Titans”) and call-backs to the 1970s meta-human-kid craze (see also the Witch Mountain books and movies).

Two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas, who looks ex-military (Joel Edgerton) are in a motel with the windows covered in cardboard. The vibe is paranoia just edging up to terror.

According to the TV, they have kidnapped an 8-year-old named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who we soon learn is Roy’s son, who sits reading comics with blue goggles over his eyes and industrial-grade ear protection on his head. It is time to move, which they can only do at night because of something having to do with Alton. Texas gives way to Louisiana.

Nichols reveals rapidly that the three are being hunted by two groups: the religious community from which Roy and Alton escaped (led by Sam Shepard) called simply “The Ranch,” and the government, led by an NSA analyst who is as much fascinated with Alton as dangerous to him (a pitch-perfect Adam Driver).

And oh yeah, now and then, blinding rays of light stream for Alton’s eyes. They can be intensely destructive, but what one sees when his eyes explode is … revelatory. The sort of thing that makes people believe in him. The sort of thing that can bring a satellite crashing to earth.

What is Alton? What is Roy and Lucas’ relationship? Is Alton a messiah, as the Ranch clearly believes, or is he something to be weaponized, as the NSA is betting?

Like a good student of What Makes These Movies Work, Nichols knows that these questions fire the imagination far more than the answers. As anyone knows who has seen a movie and exclaimed “That’s it?!?” as the credits roll, less is always, always more in these situations.

As Scorsese did with DeNiro, Nichols sees something in Shannon that most directors miss or ignore. Nichols is brilliant at finding a tough compassion at the core of Shannon’s inherent, almost Walken-ish oddness. Roy is clearly a product of the Ranch (those shirts buttoned to the top!) but is not such that his love for his son doesn’t inspire drastic action.

Over and over at key moments in “Midnight Special,” Nichols’ restraint is on-point, his pacing measured rather than slack, his plotting wise. That said, it is to his lasting credit that the reveal works, that the coda is pitch perfect, that the haunted melancholy is both familiar and welcome.

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