When it’s discovered that eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) possesses metaphysical powers, his adoptive parent Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) preaches to his commune, “The Ranch,” that the young boy is their savior. But Alton’s biological father, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), who once belonged to the religious collective, believes differently. With the aid of state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy attempts to transport Alton to a specific place outlined in the boy’s otherworldly visions. The Ranch’s suspicious activities and Alton’s abrupt removal from its premises quickly draw the attention of the FBI, aided by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), who works tirelessly to predict the trio’s next move. As the police and Calvin’s devoted followers close in on them, Roy will stop at nothing to deliver his son to their monumental destination.
In one of those rare opening sequences, it’s immediately apparent that something profound is going to unfold. This is aided by a resonant motif by composer David Wingo, the severity with which the lead players approach their roles, and the unnerving setup, involving an Amber Alert and the uncertainty of the motives behind presumed kidnappers. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, that initial momentum is all but discarded, giving way to an unnecessary compounding of complex mysteries, for which writer/director Jeff Nichols has no intention of solving. In time, it becomes clearer that the filmmakers were so consumed with creating a sense of profundity that they completely forgot to inject genuine substance into the story.
Of the various head-scratchers at work, it’s the supernatural ones that are handled with the greatest care. They’re more effective thanks to their establishment in seriousness and reality, allowing for a slow seeping into the science-based inquisitiveness of the FBI and NSA, before the picture becomes fully sci-fi/fantasy. Like a horror movie, the extraterrestrial elements are revealed suddenly, hoping to draw audiences in to what would otherwise be outrageous scenarios. In this way, it’s a bit like “Knowing” or “The Sixth Sense,” harboring a creepiness that can’t be shaken off too quickly. It leads to an impressive moment in a hotel room, where predictable terror can be transformed into adventurous shock. With the film’s efforts to put ordinary people into extraordinary events, these scenes are even more fascinating, especially as villains are shaped from the most unexpected sources while agitation (or suspense) is kept constant. And, of course, the setting really helps, creating a throwback to ‘80s sci-fi flicks (particularly “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) with a glimmer of “Escape to Witch Mountain” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (but without the morals).
Despite the intrigue from the beginning, the pacing rapidly deteriorates, due largely to the intensification of cryptic clues that results in fewer and fewer answers. After nearly 90 minutes, an explanation is offered for Alton’s predicament, but it’s still unsuitably, almost comically vague. Some sharp editing, a few surprising minutes, and catchy music can’t overcome the dryness of the dialogue and the obscurity of the plot. It’s not so much a lack of detail as it is a deficiency in focus; there’s too much meandering on interactions that ultimately go nowhere (such as with David Jensen, Sam Shepard, and even Adam Driver). If Nichols’ intentions were to recreate the thrills of ‘80s science-fiction, he sorely missed the mark with tone, mood, humor, meaningful resolutions, and, most importantly, the fun.