A father, Roy (Michael Shannon), goes on the run to protect his young son, Alton, a boy with mysterious powers that even Roy himself cannot comprehend. What starts as a race from religious extremists and local law enforcement quickly escalates to a nationwide manhunt involving the highest levels of the Federal Government. Risking everything, Roy is committed to helping Alton reach his ultimate purpose, whatever that might be and whatever it costs.
It’s the break of dawn and two men - Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) – sneak a young boy out of a dingy hotel room and into an old car. The boy’s name is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and the TV news says he’s been kidnapped, but before we learn much more than that there’s a lot of driving ahead. Roy, it seems, is Alton’s father; finding out what Lucas has to do with them is even further away. For a while it seems like writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is going to take the idea of “show, don’t tell” to the limit as the trio drive their old car across the moody, evocative expanse of America’s Midwest.
Eventually though the puzzle pieces start to, if not fall into place, at least become distinct. Roy has snatched his son from “The Ranch”, the home of a creepy cult (led by Sam Shepard) that stockpiles guns and prays in numbers, and they’re keen to get Alton back. The government, most notably rumpled NSA analyst Sevier (Adam Driver) is also after Alton, though they’re not exactly sure why. Roy is taking his son to his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), though we’re not exactly sure why. And as for why Alton can hear radio transmissions, has to be kept out of direct sunlight, can make satellites crash and has random bursts of searing light shoot from his eyes… well, some things are better left unsaid.
The big moments are effective, but like Nichols' earlier films, it’s the quiet moments that linger.
Hollywood’s been after someone who can replicate Steven Spielberg’s early career magic for a while now (see J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 and a large chunk of M. Night Shyamalan’s work), but this is the closest anyone’s come in ages – and not just because for long stretches this feels like it could be set in the early ‘80s. There’s numerous other early ‘80s influences mixed in – Nichols has mentioned Starman, but Firestarter and Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind feel more appropriate – but this isn’t a straight-up homage. Nichols uses our memory of those films to help fill in the (many) gaps in his story-telling; this is a film at least as interested in mood as it is in plot, and the less time he spends explaining the latter, the stronger the former grows.
Characters are boiled down to their essence, but that essence is usually a potent one. The only way a rock-solid Shannon could be playing more of an archetypical father is if his character’s actual name was “Dad”, while much of the supporting cast make a strong impression despite thin roles through sheer screen presence. A nervy Driver gets to be funny in a film that isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, and Edgerton continues his run of impressive US work playing a decent guy walking a line between awe and terror.
The sketchy plot certainly adds to the mood, but it can be a little frustrating too. So much isn’t told here that what is explained can feel arbitrary and erratic; the movie’s central journey through a night-time American heartland – but with car crashes, shoot-outs and startling special effects thrown in – is the real point here. The big moments are effective, but like Nichols' earlier films, it’s the quiet moments that linger; he’s a director that excels when he digs down past genre thrills to unearth their buried humanity.