(director/writer: Jeff Nicholls; cinematographer: Adam Stone; editor: Julie Monroe; music: David Wingo; cast: Michael Shannon (Roy), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton), Adam Driver (Sevier), Sam Shepard (Calvin Meyer), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Sean Bridgers (Fredrick-ranch member), Dana Gourrier (Sharon Davison-counselor); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones; Warner Brothers; 2016)

Wonderfully filled with mysterious surprises.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An original but old-school cryptic sci-fi movie by writer-director Jeff Nicholls (“Mud”/”Take Shelter”), that’s wonderfully filled with mysterious surprises and imaginative split-screen photography. It blends together a variety of genres, such as a crime story, a road picture, a science-fiction allegory, a family drama and a Christian allegory. The title was inspired by a Lead Belly song. In the ballad, the Midnight Special is a train. The train supposedly is a symbol of redemption.Spoiler alerts throughout. I opens with a child abduction. Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are heavily armed. Their victim is an intrepid 8-year-old lad named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who has no fear of them. We arrive next at a religious cult compound, called the Ranch, and observe the oily stern patriarch Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) who is protected by goons in gangster suits. The patriarch wants the kid back because he deems him as the prophet who will return the land to following God. The compound women wear long old-fashioned dresses and have long plated hair. Upon further reflection, it seems the kid was rescued rather than kidnapped. We soon learn Alton is the cult’s godhead, who possesses supernatural powers. We also learn that Alton’s father is Roy. Furthermore we learn the boy somehow has access to top-secret codes and has been hunted down in a nation-wide manhunt as a national security risk by the nerdy and goofy National Security Agency operative Sevier (Adam Driver). The kid it turns out was a runaway who was tracked along the back roads of Texas and Louisiana, where he stopped to visit his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). While on the run he also brought a satellite down from the sky and onto a parking lot. The imperfect but imposing film seems to turn on being a metaphor on how parents can love a special child who possesses extraordinary gifts. All the other themes raised were not followed through, but linger around keeping things murky and confrontational. What gets the filmmaker’s attention is the mystery story surrounding the child and how he’s treated by the adults around him. We are allowed to imagine that he could be a Jesus, child prodigy or a comic-book superhero figure. But there’s a last minute reveal, which is not that compelling as if were induced to imagine something beyond our knowledge. The film is provocative, entertaining, unique and intelligently presented. Also the child actor is top-notch.