When Thelma and Louise drive off that cliff, it’s a great climax for a movie but a terrible ending for a road trip. “Midnight Special” goes off its own narrative cliff, capping a compelling story with a third-act resolution so misguided that’s it’s the dramatic equivalent of punching the gas and plunging into the abyss.
That’s a pity, because this fourth film from writer-director Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) creates genuine suspense and mystery when it’s keeping secrets. If you thought the punchline of “10 Cloverfield Lane” betrayed everything that preceded it, here’s a movie with a much better setup and a much more disappointing payoff.
For most of its running time, “Midnight Special” represents some of the best work from Nichols and his regular collaborator Michael Shannon; the storytelling is tense and captivating, while the characters are recognizably human and empathetic. The people in Nichols’ films may live far from the city, but there’s never a sense that they’re being condescended to as country folks. This filmmaker is a keen observer of life between the coasts, and the Texas-to-Florida road trip here assiduously avoids even a hint of cornpone cliché.
We get plunged into that road trip with little explanation, but the mystery that unfolds captures the imagination: News reports announce a Texas Amber Alert for young Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher, “St. Vincent”), who’s been kidnapped by Roy (Shannon) — yet when we see Alton in a motel room with Roy and his comrade Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the boy doesn’t seem particularly traumatized. But why’s he sitting under a sheet wearing goggles and noise-cancelling headphones?
Meanwhile, the FBI is storming the compound of a religious group being run by Calvin (Sam Shepard), but it’s not your standard-issue cult; sure, the women all wear sister-wife braids, but the congregation chants code words and number sequences rather than scripture. Those numbers, as it turns out, are classified transmissions that somehow traveled via satellite straight into Alton’s brain, so while the cult thinks the child is their messiah, those government agents want to capture him as a potential weapon.
Along the way we meet Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who’s devoted to helping Roy and Alton, and NSA agent Sevier (Adam Driver), the film’s one federal employee who actually treats Alton with compassion. (Driver and Lieberher’s scenes together are so wonderfully comic and off-kilter that they could form the basis of their own movie.)
Roy and Lucas travel the back roads with their young charge, wondering who to trust and how to proceed as they try to shake off their two sets of pursuers. And then “Midnight Special” starts providing answers that aren’t nearly as interesting or as imaginative as its questions, and a movie that’s Spielberg-ian in the good way (it calls to mind an oddball mix of “The Sugarland Express” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) starts invoking the lackluster retreads of Spielberg’s bigger hits. (We’re sold out of “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” but can I interest you in a copy of “D.A.R.Y.L.”?)
At its best, “Midnight Special” reminds us why Nichols is such an exciting presence on the filmmaking scene, from the poetically minimal look and sound of his work (he once again collaborates with cinematographer Adam Stone and composer David Wingo) to his skill at directing actors, particularly Michael Shannon. Too many movies give this talented performer a chance to play only one or two brilliant notes, but Nichols writes symphonies for his muse.
Those upsides are enough to make the film worth a look, and there are certainly plenty of moments that will turn up in Nichols’ career-achievement clip reel. But none of it is enough to overcome that ending.