Mysterious and heartfelt, Midnight Special manages to juggle the possibilities of religion, conspiracy, and science fiction right until its stunning climax.

The film opens to the noise of newscasters reporting on a missing child, who has seemingly been abducted by Michael Shannon’s Roy. In a nondescript motel room with panels of cardboard duct-taped over the windows, Joel Edgerton’s Lucas is methodically packing away an armoury as Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton Meyer sits beneath a bedsheet with a torch and a comic book. Roy, Lucas, and Alton hurry from the room to a car outside. The receptionist watches them as the news report rolls along in the background. As they pull away from the car park, she reaches for the phone.

It’s resplendent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in that it’s visceral and stark. There’s a near-constant sense of pursuit and a muddle of mysteries surrounding the central cast. The motivations of every character are deliberately murky. Michael Shannon is often cold and gruff with Alton, but he delivers a superb turn as a man who believes in his son.

The mystery of Alton Meyer refuses to unravel easily. He’s a boy imbued with strange powers that give him the gift of foresight, the ability to tap into radio and satellite signals, and the potential to bring said satellites down from the sky. That latter sequence is a brilliant moment of action and cinematography, brilliantly breaking up the long miles of night-time tarmac. Alton Meyer is believed to be the prophet of a shady cult who will kill to get him back, believed to be a weapon by the Federal Government who seem to be intent on moving heaven and earth to capture him — it’s not until the startling end that we glimpse the real world of Alton Meyer. Even then, the audience will be left with questions, but Science Fiction is meant to be speculative, it’s part of the fun.

The Sci-Fi elements are less important than the relationships at the heart of the film. Roy’s iron resolve initially comes across as religious fervour, but the audience is witness to the intensely personal journey that sees him accept the fact that, after everything, his son may not belong to him. There’re three fantastic pay-offs to his often cold demeanour: once where he is driving pell-mell down a hard shoulder towards his kidnapped son, bullet in his shoulder and face set in stone. It’s easy to see through to the desperate love of a father. As for the other two, you’ll just have to wait and see.

Jeff Nichols balances a stellar cast, and they each have their purpose. Joel Edgerton is fantastic as Lucas, at first coming across as a hardened veteran with the same resolve as Roy. He’s the gun-toting bodyguard of-sorts, often framed deliberately looking into the family unit. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for him, especially as the suspense peels away to reveal some touching, and genuinely hilarious moments. He acts as Alton’s surrogate big brother and plays it perfectly. Whether he’s taking shotgun shells for him, telling jokes, or asking about the colour of the sunrise, he always has Alton’s best interests at heart.

Kirsten Dunst plays Sarah Tomlin, Alton’s mother. She is given less to do, but her ragged demeanour and swelling emotion are completely convincing of a mother who has had her son taken from her. Then there’s Adam Driver as Paul Sevier, the NSA agent working with the FBI and CIA to track Alton’s whereabouts. His laconic, almost awkward acting is disarming, giving him a charm that belies the sinister officers surrounding him. There’s never a sense that he’s hunting Alton down for the same sinister purposes that the Government arround him are.

Then there’s the film’s focal point; Jaeden Lieberher himself. He plays the Messiah-figure of the movie, speaking with formality and clarity of purpose. But his vulnerability is always believable, and the lengths characters will go to in order to use him for their own devices is often frightening. His importance in the film world is based on an ability he has to grant visions by projecting light into people’s eyes. Afterwards, they are completely convinced of his importance. As these visions are never divulged to the audience, it takes a while to understand just why so much hinges on this little boy. But as Alton grows ill and the surrounding forces threaten, the why becomes less and less important. You start to root for them, even if you have no idea what it is they’re doing.

Much of the film is set at night due to the central cult’s belief that Alton’s powers are uncontrollable during daylight. It makes for some gorgeous moments of cinematography, including what could be the most intense sunrise ever shown on screen. It’s a modern film that’s also very old school. The 80’s-style synth soundtrack harkens back to classic Sci-Fi adventures, while the main mystery is built on more complex origins than mere aliens or angels. At its best, it si reminiscent of Spielberg, with the seriousness balanced with fun in a way that’s almost Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It certainly defines Jeff Nichols as a masterful storyteller with a bright future ahead.

The film is shy of exhibition, forcing audiences to work hard to answer many of the questions themselves. Midnight Special is well worth the effort. It’s filled with soulful moments, blistering and abrupt sequences of violence, wit, and heart. Most importantly, it’s filled with hope—just don’t blink at the end, or you might miss it.

Midnight Special is now sowing at FACT. Want more from the universe? Current exhibition unfold by Ryoichi Kurokawa uncovers the birth of stars.