***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13

for some violence and action
Released: March 18, 2016 limited; April 8, 2016 expands
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard

Right out of the gate the stakes are high, mysterious, possibly supernatural, and they all circle around an 8-year-old boy. He’s been kidnapped from the compound of a central Texas religious cult, but it’s the FBI – not state authorities – that swoop in.

This flurry of complex dynamics is efficiently unpacked in the opening minutes of Midnight Special, a movie that feels akin to what Steven Spielberg may have conjured in his early days – but with a darker edge, less innocent, yet with as potent a heart and soul.

It’s best to go in clean beyond what I (and the film) initially established, because one of the great joys of Midnight Special is how unpredictable it is. It’s such a rare gift in an age of familiar franchises, where suspense isn’t born so much from what’s going to happen but merely how it’s all going to go down. This goes places you don’t expect, can’t foresee, or hope to calculate. That’s a particularly impressive feat given how the story works and stays within familiar (and thrilling) genre tropes.

It’s the latest from indie auteur Jeff Nichols, whose most recent effort Mud was a part of 2012’s “McConaissance” of actor Matthew McConaughey. Nichols reteams with Michael Shannon (Man Of Steel), whose second collaboration together (Take Shelter) is what this most closely resembles, at least in tone and spirit.

Initially a slow burn with stark bursts of intensity, a great deal of mystery drives Midnight Special, and yet the more things are revealed the more the mystery expands – all to the film’s credit, and power. It also works as a surprisingly effective Autism metaphor. I couldn’t tell you if that’s by design, or even remotely conscious on the part of Nichols (who wrote as well as directed), but this boy is, suffice it to say, on a spectrum all his own – and at times it’s a great burden.

Midnight Special is occasionally unsettling, even violent, but the connection between Shannon’s Roy (one of the kidnappers) and the boy Alton Meyer (Jaden Lieberher, St. Vincent, who’s quickly becoming the Haley Joel Osment of his time) grounds this high concept with emotional depth and pathos. It also allows Shannon to show a more genuinely tender side, apart from the explosive impulses he’s known for. The other kidnapper is a native Texan played by Joel Edgerton, the Australian actor who – between this and Black Mass alone – boasts Streep-like chameleon powers, adapting a region’s accent, dialect, and disposition as if he were born and raised there.

Kirsten Dunst gives a raw maternal depth to Alton’s mother, from fears and regrets to a quiet strength and resolve, and its arguably the best straight-dramatic work of her adult career. Adam Driver is the polar opposite of his volatile Kylo Ren, here a curious NSA agent who’s more calm and reasoned than his FBI counterparts. Sam Shepard, too, once again provides yeoman’s work as the religious cult’s leader, acting from a quiet, even humble, conviction rather than fiery theatrical manipulation.

I don’t know what Lucasfilm’s long-term vision is (this is released by Warner Bros., incidentally, and has nothing to do with that Disney subsidiary), but if it ever intends to branch out beyond the two main brands its founder created (Star Wars and Indiana Jones, if it even need be said), CEO Kathleen Kennedy would do well to develop and connect itself to original ideas, and filmmakers, like this one. While not for children, Midnight Special is cut from the same cloth as the Lucasfilm and Amblin tales of old, but for a more psychologically and emotionally complex post-modern age.

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