Jeff Nichols' latest can be summed up as a sci-fi chase film. Two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) have apparently kidnapped a boy named Alton Meyer, and are the subject of a Federal manhunt. But it turns out this isn't a simple kidnapping. Not only does one of the men have a connection to Alton, the boy has mysterious abilities that make him not only of interest to the government, but to a cult who, it transpires, Alton was rescued from. The source and extent of these abilities grow ever stranger as the two men and the ever-weakening boy, later joined by a woman (Kristen Dunst) make their way towards a location in the wilderness of Florida , desperate to be there by a specific time and date. What will happen when they arrive?
Ultimately, this film works best when it embraces its thematic core as an allegory for parents' fears of losing their children. Michael Shannon does genuinely beautiful work, even without a lot of dialogue, as you see the depth of his devotion and fear grow ever deeper in his eyes. Even as outsiders attempt to paint him as a kidnapper, even as his love for Alton drives him to do what under normal circumstances would be awful things, Shannon remains completely human and sympathetic. For a man who tends to be cast as weirdos, monsters, and lunatics, Shannon does a great job of playing a pretty regular guy in extraordinary circumstances, whose driving motivation is his love for his boy and his belief in Alton, no matter what it costs himself, Alton, or anyone else.
Dunst doesn't show up until around Act 2 of the film, but she does similarly powerful work. The emotional power of the climax (such as it is) largely comes from her reaction to it. It's really nice supporting work.
The third key performance belongs to Joel Edgerton, the outsider/old friend of Shannon's who has been roped into this madness. His friendship with Shannon - and his growing devotion to the whole family unit and growing belief in Alton's powers - is really nicely underplayed throughout.
However, Alton himself remains a bit of a cipher. He's much more a vessel for his parents' fears (and for his strange powers) than a character in his own right. The cult (even anchored by Sam Shepard and with a splendidly menacing heavy who ruminates on his position with the line "I am an electrician, certified in two states. What do I know of such things?") ends up being a bit of a red herring. The government team, however, is anchored by Paul Savier (a very funny Adam Driver), all gawky excitement peeking through the surface of bureaucracy.
Jeff Nichols clearly made a very conscious choice to lose as much exposition as he could, and instead let the story play out visually as much as possible, which leads to some beautiful and deliciously suspenseful sequences. The opening, in which Shannon and Edgerton move their "kidnappee" to the car as quickly as possible without trying to draw attention. The shocking first reveal of Alton's "communion" powers. The gas station, with the sickening realization of what exactly Alton means when he says "I'm sorry". The scene where Alton and Paul come face-to-face at last. The family making its desperate last drive through the government blockade to reach their destination.
The climactic reveal may not work for some. Nichols is attempting a daring leap here, portraying a vision of the sublime in a manner which could come off as too cheesy or too mysterious. But what resonates is Dunst's face - even as she reacts to the wonder, it's always with an awareness that it is coming at an awful cost. To paraphrase a line of the film, parents will always worry for their children. That's the deal.