After the Huck Finn-like "Mud," a coming-of-age fable rooted on terra firma, Jeff Nichols returns to the supernatural portent of his earlier "Take Shelter," with all manner of bells on. Doffing its cap overtly to John Carpenter, less obviously to Spielberg, but with Nichols’ perennial preoccupations intact, this is a family drama, chase movie and science-fiction thriller rolled into one fascinating and immensely gripping package. With Nichols regular Michael Shannon bringing his usual intensity to the table, it’s likely to be one of the buzziest competition entries in this year’s Berlinale.
In "Take Shelter" Shannon played a man obsessed with protecting his family from an impending cataclysm that may have simply been a figment of encroaching madness. Here, Shannon’s character, Roy, is also on a mission to protect family, namely his eight-year-old son Alton; but the questions are not over Roy’s state of mind, but the boy’s very being. Who, or what, is he? The possible answers are strange and immense.
The film starts in a magnetic, low-key mode that it never relinquishes, with Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run with Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who they are accused of abducting from his foster father, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd). Meyer is the head of a religious cult, of which Roy was once a member and which believes Alton to be a messiah. The cult wants the boy back "in time" to save them, and will go to any lengths to find him. So will the FBI, which has learned that Alton has been conjuring reams of sensitive data while speaking in tongues on the cult’s ranch. NSA agent Sevier (Adam Driver) joins the pursuit, with a more thoughtful approach and a greater understanding of what this data leak means.
But Roy’s chief concern is not who’s behind them, but what’s ahead, the destination that his sickly son has identified as integral to his survival.
The elfin-faced Alton is certainly a strange lad, the swimming goggles he wears most of the time less a child’s affectation than protection for those around him — when he takes them off, the dry procedural of the chase movie is blasted away with some spectacular, and quite terrifying surprises.
But with every strange occurrence, the mystery thickens. As the plot slow-burns its way from Texas to Florida, collecting Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) on the way, there are far more questions than answers. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, characters do little to explain their actions or feelings. They don’t need answers, because each of them is driven by blind faith in the boy, whether it be as savior, potential threat, or son.
And for his part, Nichols displays that rare faith in his audience, to go with the flow, make our own deductions or assumptions, to read into this cross-country chase what we will — Christian allegory, alien fantasy, or any number of options in between.
The actors carry us along with them, not least the inestimable Shannon, who’s always more interesting when he gets to combine his intensity with compassion; he’s at once scary and touching here as a man completely at the service of his child. Edgerton and Dunst lend believable, unfussy support on the Alton team, and Driver is back from the Dark Side and very effective as the smart, sympathetic NSA agent. Lieberher easily overcomes that trickiest of propositions for young actors — how to be a preternatural child, without simply being irritating.
Nichols has cited "Starman" as an influence, and with his film's determined pacing, sombre tone and atmospheric, pulsing electronic soundtrack (courtesy of David Wingo), Carpenter is certainly evoked throughout. But I also couldn’t help thinking of the parallel journeys of an Everyman and government forces towards a decisive rendezvous in "Close Encounters of The Third Kind" (whose main character was also a Roy) or of the childlike alien of "ET."
At the same time, this very much feels like a Nichols film. As writer/director of four features now, including "Shotgun Stories," he's proving to be one of those chameleon auteurs who will skillfully skip between genres while investigating a central theme, in his case the family bond — for good and ill, and usually in crisis. And whatever each one's dominant hue, there's a shared tone that is wholly distinctive.
It’s a shame that his restraint here abandons him in
the denouement, visually at least; he really could have saved a few bucks and
left more to our imaginations (or go the full Spielberg — and show far more). But
that’s easily forgiven when there’s still so much to scratch our heads about
and so much wonderment to be had.