An eight year old boy, Alton Meyer, has been kidnapped. The police have provided details to the news stations, who broadcast with increasing urgency and fervour to be on the lookout for the boy with the blue eyes and brown hair. There is no photograph of him but there is of his suspected abductor, who they warn is armed and extremely dangerous.
What the police do not know is that kidnapper Roy (Man of Steel‘s Michael Shannon) has an accomplice, his childhood friend Lucas (The Thing‘s Joel Edgerton), now a State Trooper, his expertise, knowledge of police procedure and access to specialist equipment having assisted in the kidnapping greatly. They drive only at night, headlights off, with Lucas scanning the road ahead with night vision gear.
In the back of the car, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) he reads the comic books which Lucas gave him by torchlight, never removing his swimming goggles. Nobody sees his eyes. But this is no ordinary kidnapping. The trust between Alton and Roy, his biological father, is implicit and immediate, while the man who adopted him, Calvin Meyer (Cold in July‘s Sam Shepard) is the leader of a religious cult who are under investigation by the FBI.
They want Alton back, and with a deadline of only four days for “their salvation” they are prepared to go to any length to get him, by which time Roy hopes to be far across the country. But under the lead of investigator Paul Sevier (The Force Awakens‘ Adam Driver), the FBI have turned their attention from the cult to Alton himself, Meyer’s sermons having been derived from the words of the child, recitations of top secret encrypted satellite data.
As the first season of The X-Files was often derivative of earlier works of science fiction cinema, so this premise is the plot of Conduit, an early first season episode of that show, though as it progresses the road trip detours through many other familiar scenarios, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, even Superman with Alton drawing his strength and power from the golden light of the sun (ironically referenced earlier in Alton’s comic books and with Shannon having played General Zod), before arriving at the unexpected destination of Tomorrowland.
The fourth feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, he has worked with two of the principal cast before, Shannon on both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Shepard on Mud, here he adds Edgerton, Driver and Melancholia‘s Kirsten Dunst, all of them giving intense but low-key performances, while David Wingo’s score offers the ethereal punctuated by the pulsing synth of John Carpenter.
Similar to the oblique Take Shelter, it is again a story of a man doing what he can to protect his family in unusual and extreme circumstances beyond his control, ordinary people touched by something beyond their comprehension and trying to cope, the elegiac mood occasionally shockingly punctuated by violence or the otherwordly, as at the gas station; recalling another X-File, Drive, whenever they stop, something bad happens.
As with Nichols’ other films it is brooding rather than urgent and it is overlong, though an argument could be made that the finale must be earned rather than gifted. Like Take Shelter, it offers few answers, just questions; unlike Take Shelter the vision it offers is one of optimism, that there is a world better than ours, and that even if we cannot share in it, we should do the right thing by those who belong there.