Four films into his career, writer-director Jeff Nichols seems incapable of making a bad movie, or even an uninteresting one. At a time when most indie filmmakers gauge success by the speed of their graduation from low-budget features to Marvel blockbusters, this 37-year-old auteur is instead skipping around genres and continuing to make distinct, region-specific tales. The latest is his first film released through a major studio, but it feels as personal as any of his previous works. Starting with 2007’s small-town drama Shotgun Stories, then moving on to 2011’s searing character study Take Shelter and the following year’s coming-of-age thriller Mud, Nichols has repeatedly explored the tenuous bonds that hold families together. Midnight Special is no different, even though it just so happens to be a science-fiction thriller.

The film throws us headfirst into the middle of its story, confident that we’re bright enough to piece together what’s happening. Nichols’s frequent leading man Michael Shannon plays Roy, a determined father who, along with his old buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton), have snatched Roy’s young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a Texas cult headed by Sam Shepard. The cult believes the boy is a messiah, while the federal government views him as a dangerous weapon. We soon understand both groups’ reasoning: At inopportune moments, Alton’s eyes flash with white blinding light, disrupting power sources around him.

So, who’s right and what’s going on exactly? Nichols leaves those mysteries, and others, unanswered for much of Midnight Special’s running time. The film has been compared to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman, with a dash of E.T. thrown in as well, but unlike a lot of sci-fi movies, we’re not given a set of rules at the start to then serve as our guide into the narrative. Instead, Nichols constantly teases out new information—not just about Alton’s strange powers but also about Roy, Lucas, and others—that deepens our understanding of what we’re witnessing. Grounding the proceedings in realism, Nichols never gives his characters big speeches to explain what they’re doing and why: Every character in Midnight Special is smart, and so they simply go about pursuing their objectives, and part of the film’s pleasure is guessing and then sometimes being surprised by what will transpire. 

On its simplest level, Midnight Special is a superb chase movie, with Roy, Lucas, and Alton careening through Texas, heading east to some unspecified rendezvous spot. (They often do this at night, for reasons we’ll eventually understand.) Trying to outrun an Amber Alert, they hope to stay a step ahead of the cult’s enforcers (one of whom is played by Bill Camp), while in the meantime a team led by Adam Driver’s nerdy, brilliant NSA operative Paul Sevier is working remotely to determine exactly where these fugitives are headed. Nichols has woven suspense into several of his previous movies—all of which take place in sleepy, vibrantly drawn communities in the Midwest or South—but never with the scope and intensity that he brings to Midnight Special. The film feels intimately drawn but also grandly designed, the crosscutting between the different groups of characters hinting at a significant showdown coming just down the road. 

But the film’s great strength is that, although nestled comfortably in a couple genres, it keeps scurrying free of their strictures so that Nichols can focus on the emotional connective tissue that unites his central characters. Better yet, he doesn’t always make those connections explicit. When our runaways eventually hook up with Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Alton’s mother and Roy’s wife, there’s no explanation given about the couple’s status or their individual backstories. Sarah’s long braided ponytail suggests she was once part of the cult, but even that is speculation, and frankly the absence of such details adds a rich texture of ambiguity and urgency to everything we see. Midnight Special’s principals are in such a rush to get Alton to his destination that there’s no time for needless character specifics.

In recent years, Shannon has become more of a household name thanks to appearances in mainstream movies such as Man of Steel and The Night Before (not to mention HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), but with that higher profile came the risk that this consummate actor’s actor would start leaning too heavily on his bug-eyed strangeness for easy dramatic sparks or cheap laughs. From the start, Nichols has cast Shannon for his ability to portray ordinary men possessing a bracing rawness—they’re not quirky, but rather, painfully human—and again in Midnight Special, he’s provided his star with a role that’s powerfully insular. Shannon responds beautifully: Roy isn’t a particularly colorful character, but the actor imbues him with such devotion to his son that he never needs to tell the boy he loves him because it’s poignantly self-evident. This muted, deeply affecting performance couldn’t have come at a better time for Shannon, who puts away his tics for a taut, effortless portrayal of paternal instinct. 

The supporting players are just as strong—and just as effectively invisible. Driver never overdoes Paul’s nerdy genius, creating just enough room for a sweet side that will become important when he finally meets Alton. Lucas may be little more than Roy’s buddy and sounding board, but Edgerton imbues the character with such rough-hewn edginess that he instantly becomes exactly the guy you’d want by your side when everybody’s on your tail. It’s a performance that’s meant to disappear, complementing the film’s flinty, unromantic sprint toward its unknown end point. As for Lieberher, he’s done adorable in St. Vincent and Aloha, but here he’s almost crushingly believable as a little boy whose incredible, unpredictable powers leave him both terrified and sporadically serenely assured.

There’s no question that Midnight Special has an accessible, retro feel, recalling not just the late-1970s and early-1980s of Hollywood mainstream filmmaking but also a seemingly bygone era in which studios would actually release idiosyncratic, intelligent genre films like this. By Transformers standards, Midnight Special appears to have a minuscule budget, but that doesn’t stop the movie from boasting solid-looking effects that feel cutting-edge while evoking the gritty drive-in pleasures of yesteryear. Nichols works alongside several frequent collaborators—including cinematographer Adam Stone and composer David Wingo—and together they’ve created a film that’s both nostalgic and innovative, comfortable enough to reference past masters but also heartfelt and inspired enough to find its own emotional terrain. 

Nichols has his flaws. Four films in, he still seems incapable or disinterested in crafting nuanced female characters. (At least in Mud that lack of dimensions seemed intentional, as Sarah Paulson and Reese Witherspoon played women the male characters simply couldn’t understand. Here, though, Dunst simply has nothing to do.) And when Midnight Special finally resolves its mysteries, it can’t quite escape the shadow of the more startling surprises that emerged from the film’s famous predecessors. But those objections only exist because Nichols has thus far refused to give in to the cookie-cutter conventionality that has ensnared so many of his indie peers, who decided to stop making original films and instead cast their lot with the franchises. His failings feel like the well-intentioned stumbles of an artist forging his own path.

And he’s not done yet. Nichols’s next film, supposedly already close to completed, is Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple whose marriage sparked the infamous 1967 civil-rights case Loving v. Virginia. It sounds like nothing he’s done before, which should surprise no one who loves his work. Fingers crossed he’s on his way to going five-for-five. 

Grade: A-

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Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site