There's an extremely strong chance that Midnight Special ends up as the best science-fiction film of 2016. It is thus awkward for me to suggest that it would maybe be better if it was less of a science-fiction film. The film's strengths - and they are glorious strengths - are entirely grounded in the smallest naturalistic details, with writer-director Jeff Nichols outdoing even his own very great previous work in capturing the physicality of the regions of the U.S., both as a natural and human environment. Indeed, it is this excellent grounding that allows it to be such a great genre film: it has a thick foundation of the real and quotidian that serves as a stark contrast to the sci-fi shenanigans of the plot, which thereby gains a level of import and weight rare in more fanciful sci-fi.

That is very much the same idea that Nichols played with in 2011's Take Shelter (still the best of his now four features), which allow an apocalypse fantasy to flirt around on the margins of a middle American domestic drama. That film ruthlessly restricts its generic elements, so that they land with uncommon force. Midnight Special is a good deal freer and easier with its overt sci-fi touches, and they get just a little bit cornier every time. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it breaks the film, but it does cut into its momentum a bit: most of it is a tense, paranoid three-way chase film, and every now and then that tension literally erupts in big visual effects events, and I dunno. It left me feeling a bit deflated every time after the first, where it was so unexpected as to work exactly the way that Nichols meant for it.

But back to those strengths, anyway. Midnight Special is an impressive two-hour exercise in withholding: it is a film in which everything not immediately germane to the moment being depicted here and now is not given to us, and this includes some very essential details of the relationships between characters. I can see finding this to be crazily frustrating, given that it has the immediate effect of turning the film into a mystery not just at the level of "what is going on?", but also of "who are these people?", and "why the hell should I care about them?" On the other hand, it leaves the film breathlessly efficient, which not an adjective that typically suggests much enjoyment or enthusiasm, but in the case of Midnight Special means it's all sinews and muscle - it darts through what counts as exposition by this movie's standards with the wiry terseness of a big cat striding through its domain.

I will honor the film's refusal to clarify anything unnecessary by presenting only what we know at the start: Roy (Michael Shannon, Nichols's good luck charm) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are driving through Louisiana with a young boy in tow, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). According to the news report Roy is watching in the trio's shared hotel room, they are kidnappers, but this seems hard to square with the apparent affection and kindliness the adults show towards the boy. We can presume fairly early on that they've snatched Alton away from The Ranch, a cult in Texas led by Pastor Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), and The Ranch wants him back, but this is the least of our apparent heroes' concerns. The FBI has also gotten involved; it seems that Calvin's sermons had begun incorporating detailed and highly classified information, and his only explanation to Agent Sevier (Adam Driver) as to how that could possibly be is that he took inspiration from Alton when the boy was speaking in tongues.

Alton, of course, has Powers, though what exactly they are and where they came from is one of the many, many plot details that Midnight Special refuses to clarify until late, or never. It's a very essentialist film, this one, one where you can describe almost everything according to a key emotion or motivation; the most important is undoubtedly the extraordinarily protective relationship Roy has with Alton, a simple and brutally direct feeling of loving concern that fuels basically everything else in the movie. Shannon plays this overwhelming state of feeling with exemplary vigor throughout; it sounds like it ought to be a one-note depiction interesting only in how intensely the famously intense Shannon was able to make that note, but in practice there is such a wide range of ways that Shannon portrays his dedication to the boy, ranging from kindly old patriarch to snarling papa bear to boiling '70s paranoia thriller terror, that it might even topple his work in Take Shelter as my favorite thing he's done in a movie.

And it's not the only good performance in the movie - it might not even be the best performance in the movie. Edgerton and Driver are pretty damn great themselves, with Driver in particular coming up with some of the most fascinating odd angles I've ever seen on the basic "pursuing G-man" figure, playing Sevier as almost abashed to be in his own movie (a sheepish little thumbs-up as he readies to fly off in a helicopter immediately ranks as one of my favorite bits of acting I've seen in a 2016 release).

These three great performances - and several fine supporting turns as well, though Nichols continues the bad habit he started in Mud from 2012 of not quite knowing what he's doing with his female characters; Kirsten Dunst plays the film's solitary significant woman, and she does what she can with a role the film simply cannot figure out an angle on - don't quite combine to make Midnight Special a great human story, though they provide plenty of human interest. The story is always about the low-key nervousness that gets a little more frayed in every scene, and how it is thrown into relief by the perfect, enthrallingly casual depiction of the southern settings of the action. This is a film of beautifully on-point observations, with even the most trivial details of the mise en scène contributing to the overall feeling of lived-in reality: Roy's half-painted car, the fading exteriors of dead stores, the anonymous, well-used furniture lightly speaking of widespread and thus invisible poverty. Coupled with Adam Stone's gorgeous photography - capturing the humid nights, shadeless, and especially the rapturous sunsets of the setting with painterly grace, and doing a generally fine job of keeping our attention trained on the fluid texture of light in a film where light is an actual plot point - it all feels like a David Gordon Green road movie rudely and nastily interrupted by a sci-fi thriller, and something about that combination works really well. Not perfectly; nor can we pretend that in the abstract, at least, this isn't a variation on a theme at least as old as the 1975 release Escape to Witch Mountain. But it's a lovely and well-acted variation, and for its bravely cryptic storytelling strategies alone, I'd be inclined to say this one is more than worth a peek.