If you’ve seen the posters or the trailers for “Midnight Special” — which I truly hope you haven’t — you know they try to pigeonhole the film as belonging to one genre or another. The truth is that this is a mystery movie, and the mystery is trying to figure out exactly what the heck is going on here.
That intentional uncertainty drives much of the suspense and movie-going pleasure of Jeff Nichols’s fourth film, a road movie, a father-son drama, and an entertainment that tiptoes along the edge of apocalypse. And if you don’t know what’s going on — which, again, I hope you don’t — you’ll be in a better position to judge whether “Midnight Special” works when Nichols finally whisks away the curtain and shows us.
It all sounds terribly murky, but few filmmakers are as gifted at making you want to peer through the murk. There’s a reason the title of Nichols’s last movie (and the name of it’s main character) was “Mud” (2012), in which Matthew McConaughey played either a hero out of a tall tale or just another small-town loser. Even better was 2011’s “Take Shelter,” an unbearably tense drama about a dad (Michael Shannon) trying to protect his family from a disaster only he sees coming.
Shannon again plays a father in “Midnight Special,” and no director is better than Nichols at bringing out the tenderness in this almost Biblically fierce actor. When the film opens, Roy (Shannon) is on the run in Texas with a tight-lipped accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and a spooky little boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who sits in the back seat of his dad’s junker wearing swimming goggles and reading Superman comics. The goggles are there, it turns out, for our protection as well as Alton’s.
There’s an Amber alert out for the trio, but this is no ordinary kidnapping. For one thing, the FBI has descended upon The Ranch, a religious cult — run by a weathered old Sam Shepard — that has organized an entire belief system around the boy. For another, the NSA wants to know how the kid is intercepting their satellite secrets. Lieberher (“Aloha,” “St. Vincent”) is a skilled young actor with the face of a junior mortician, and he carries the weight of this film’s world on his birdlike shoulders.
How ambitious is Nichols? His model isn’t merely Steven Spielberg, but the Spielberg of the 1970s and ’80s, when the man was knocking out great, mythic box office hits. Like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Midnight Special” follows a wide cast of characters as they coalesce toward a date and a set of geographical coordinates; like the earlier film, too, it has a deep faith in average people as they come up against the unknown.
Edgerton’s Lucas gradually reveals shades that deepen him as a character, and at a certain point Kirsten Dunst turns up as Alton’s mother, looking like a dust-bowl heroine relocated to modern strip mall America. Adam Driver — last seen indulging in patricide in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — is surprisingly gentle as an NSA wonk. (It’s the sympathetic-scientist part from the old 1950s sci-fi films.)
But it’s Shannon’s movie, and as in “Take Shelter” he finds the sweet spot between unimaginable stress and equally powerful paternal love. “You don’t have to worry about me,” Alton says at one point, and Roy’s quiet response — “I like worrying about you” — feels like the secret universal motto of parenthood.
Nichols shoots “Midnight Special” with a minimum of visual frills; he knows that dramatic tension will hold the film together. The movie seems to be about people talking (or not talking), but then rather large things will happen, like a gas station that gets hit by Armageddon. There’s a pair of bland, awkward hit men (Bill Camp and Scott Haze) on Alton’s trail; Bible Belt Beckett characters and not very necessary. This is a film able to manufacture suspense out of waiting for the sun to come up.
And, yes, eventually Nichols explains What It’s All About — or close enough to satisfy the better angels of our nature — and you may be blown away by the revelation. On the other hand, you may feel what some of us felt at the end of “Take Shelter,” a crestfallen sense that not knowing was what made the movie heartfelt, crazy, unique. Closure brings “Midnight Special” down to earth; like the recent “10 Cloverfield Lane,” it’s an ingenious whatsit that resolves itself into a pretty good “Twilight Zone” episode. All right, a really good episode.
The way Jeff Nichols is going, though, he could become the filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan was trying to be before he flamed out, creating moody, broody entertainments with pop-philosophical twists. My guess is that he’s better than that. He just may not realize it yet.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Starring Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 112 minutes. PG-13 (some violence and action).