Every parent wants to think of their children as unique and special from everyone else – wants to feel that their child has gifts no one else has. Jeff Nichols’ film posits just such a kid, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a precocious pre-teen with occasionally glowing eyes, an ability to intercept radio and bandwidth frequencies, and the means to render a house in two, if he so feels like it.
As the film opens, Alton is on the lamb with his father, Roy (Nichols’ standby Michael Shannon), and his father’s friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), running away from the cult-like ranch where Alton was treated as the savior, and from the Fed, including NSA agent Sevier (Adam Driver), who want to weaponize Alton’s abilities. Running from Texas, the trio light out for a mysterious location in Louisiana, where Alton believes he’s meant to be a specific date and time, picking up his estranged mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), along the way.
Nichols, whose interesting oeuvre includes subtly peculiar and enigmatic dramas (Take Shelter), as well as more broad, high-concept vehicles (Mud) is still very much finding his way tonally. The film takes a Spielbergian convention – much of the film’s plotting can be linked to E.T. – but makes it more gritty and messy, lingering on shots and moments that the grandmaster of popcorn would have insisted glossing over. Instead, shots languish on the actor’s faces to register a more complicated sweep of emotions, a thrilling car accident registers the screech of metal on asphalt for several beats, and the child is never taken for granted and turned into a static, lovable tyke.
The result is a film that never quite settles into itself. You can feel the tug of Nichols’ different and often conflictive impulses as the film rises and dips like a barge in a gale. For every mysterious curiosity the film evokes, it offers a more ham-fisted explanation, until the ending comes, intending to sweep away confusion, but in fact leading to a good deal more questions, none of which more pressing than how it is two perfectly normal seeming parents could birth such a wondrous, fantastic creature as their otherworldly child. Had Nichols just left everything a mystery, he would have been better off, but fearing the repercussions of making a big studio film play like an indy novelty, he has instead split the difference, asking us to take literal what before was only magically implied.
Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.