The first science-fiction film from writer/director Jeff Nichols begins, as a declaration of intent, with a scene that only partially reveals its truth. Two men, Roy (Michael Shannon, who also starred in Nichols's Take Shelter) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are watching TV in a motel room whose windows have been sealed with cardboard. The TV news reports the kidnap of a young boy, Alton Meyer; Roy is the chief suspect; Alton (Jaedon Lieberher) is in the room, reading a comic under a sheet and wearing headphones and blue goggles. The kidnap isn't a kidnap at all: Roy is Alton's biological father, and has rescued his son from a cult led by Alton's adoptive father, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard, flintily uncompromising). Just after Meyer orders a follower, Doak (Bill Camp) to get the boy back by any means necessary, the cult's premises are raided by the FBI. They want the boy too.
A thriller involving car chases and shoot-outs in Louisiana back roads, motels and gas stations slowly mutates into something stranger and never quite fully explained; Nicholls backfills the story via hints and terse asides. One of the comics Alton reads is a Superman adventure, and like Superman he possesses powers fueled by the light of the sun -- he can intercept radio signals, including those deeply encrypted by the secret services, and his eyes emit rays of powerful white light that can be destructive but can also beguile (which is how Lucas, in a moment glancingly referred to rather than shown, was recruited). Unlike Superman, though, Alton has little control over his abilities, hence the cardboard-covered windows and the twilight vampiric existence of the fugitives.
The paranormal is anchored by the gritty naturalism of its Southern flatland milieu and by very human concerns: the joys, sacrifices and responsibilities of parenthood, and the nature of belief. Belief, here, is more important than understanding. Faith trumps mere facts. Roy, formerly a member of the cult, and wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, who comes into her own in the final scenes) have resolved to take back their son and help him reach a place that's special for for reasons only Alton knows. Meyer and the members of his cult believe that Alton is a messiah prophesying the end times, and although Meyer is quickly sidelined, Doak and his sidekick continue to doggedly track the fugitives, possessed by grim faith ('What do I know of these things?' former electrician Doak wails at one point). The FBI believes that Alton is a threat to national security. And Alton believes that he will find enlightenment at the end of the journey, but the exact nature of that enlightenment isn't fully explained until the very end.
Roy's conviction in the necessity of what he must do appears as resolute and unchangeable as Calvin Meyer's belief in the apocalypse; his face is shuttered by a granite-jawed impassivity that only occasionally allows a glimpse of his very human self-doubt and the anguish of his parental dilemma. Lucas, Roy's childhood friend, has a more conventional character arc, an ordinary man caught up in the extraordinary, a disciple who learns to believe and in doing so achieves a state of grace. Likewise, Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) a young NSA agent affiliated to the FBI, comes to true understanding of Alton's powers. As does, in the unhurried unfolding of the story, Alton himself, becoming ever more remote, ever more certain that he is not as divine as Calvin Meyer believes, but is not quite human either. The film withholds its key revelation until the last scene, an apparition that raises more questions about Alton's origin, and the nature of our reality, than it answers. Although it's a vision that's both unexpected and vividly rendered, it seems somewhat mundane, especially to those familiar with the memes of science fiction, a stab at transcendent wonder that doesn't quite convince. Fortunately, there's much else in this elliptical, enigmatic parable that does shine with an authentic light of otherworldly strangeness.