The world as we perceive it is a grand illusion in the impressive sci-fi thriller, Midnight Special.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who deservedly won plaudits for the 2013 drama Mud, this elegantly constructed portrait of a father-son relationship owes a sizeable debt to Steven Spielberg.
Close Encounters Of The E.T. Kind would be a fitting alternative title for Nichols’ enigmatic picture, which begs tantalising questions about our place in a vast, unexplored universe.
The opening 30 minutes are a teasing conundrum, drip-feeding us slivers of narrative and characterisation so we’re unsure who to trust or believe.
Once the cogs of a serpentine plot begin to whir, augmented with impressive special effects, our hearts belong entirely to an otherworldly boy on the run from the FBI, and his gruff protector.
The hushed intimacy of ambiguous opening scenes, punctuated by uncomfortable silences, contrasts with the screeching tyres and exploding shotguns as the edge-of-seat chase reaches a frenetic crescendo.
Television channels flicker to life with breaking news of the abduction of an eight-year-old boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), by a man identified as Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon).
Viewers are asked to remain vigilant and telephone any sightings.
Inside a hotel room, Roy and his buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton) prepare to move Alton – Roy’s biological son – under the cloak of night in order to avoid attracting attention.
A brief pit stop for petrol leads to devastation on an unimaginable scale and reveals some of the little boy’s powers.
Back at the compound of a religious cult, which used to be Alton’s home, leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) despatches two obedient disciples, Doak (Bill Camp) and Levi (Scott Haze).
“You have four days to get the boy back here,” growls Calvin, who believes that Alton will protect his flock from the end of the world.
They track Roy, Lucas and the boy to the home of Roy’s wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst).
Meanwhile, National Security Agency analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) and the FBI try to make sense of Alton’s abilities and the ramifications for mankind. Midnight Special plays cat-and-mouse with our frayed nerves. Nichols sustains tension with aplomb and his lean script eschews mawkish sentimentality, even when parents face the prospect of heartbreaking sacrifice for the ones they love.
Shannon, who has appeared in all of Nichols’ films, is tightly wound as a father on a mission, but he skilfully reveals chinks of anguish and paternal pride in his character’s armour.
Scenes between the leading man and his young co-star are spellbinding, especially when the little boy tells his father not to worry about him. Roy responds with: “I’ll always worry about you Alton, that’s the deal.”
We certainly don’t need to worry about Nichols’ film.