“What’s Kryptonite?” the little kid in the backseat asks the two men in the front of the car, bearing down a Texas highway in the middle of the night. The boy, wearing goggles and wielding a flashlight to read his Superman comic, seems preternaturally calm. The men are bottled up with urgency. There are guns by their sides.
It is still early in Jeff Nichols’ mysterious and electric “Midnight Special,” but it’s already evident that truly strange stuff is happening — and that the Kryptonite reference may not be altogether out of place.
The latest film from Jeff Nichols, whose 2011 indie “Take Shelter” likewise starred Michael Shannon and likewise surveyed the landscape between the tangibly real and the speculative and unknown, “Midnight Special” begins with a flurry of activity, all of it, it turns out, centered on Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), the 8-year-old with the otherworldly air.
There is an FBI raid on some kind of fundamentalist cult led by a man named Calvin (Sam Shepard), there is Shannon’s Roy, whose mug shot is being flashed on a TV news Amber Alert for a missing child, and there is Roy’s companion, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who comports himself like a cop, or a soldier. And there’s an NSA wonk (Adam Driver), who has flown in from Washington to interview the men and women at Calvin’s ranch — a congregation in plain attire that answer their leader’s sermons with incantations of numbers, as if the numbers were some kind of sacred text.
It would be irresponsible to divulge much more about Nichols’ boldly envisioned new movie, which follows 2012’s “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey as an escaped con, Tye Sheridan as the boy he befriends) and which calls to mind titles as divergent as the ‘70s road pic “Vanishing Point,” certain iconic Steven Spielberg efforts (no, not “Jaws”), and the just-out “10 Cloverfield Lane.”
Kirsten Dunst, wearing a French braid and a look of quiet awe, shows up midway through “Midnight Special” as Sarah, a woman with ties to both Roy and the boy, Alton. And as the latter, Lieberher, who ably shared 2014’s “St. Vincent” with some guy named Bill Murray, manages to project both innocence and enigma. Alton projects something else, too, but let’s not go there.
“Midnight Special” races across the Gulf Coast states, from Central Texas to the Florida panhandle, with cops and Feds and henchmen in hot pursuit. How the film plays out, and what happens to the boy and the adults in his company, may prove a revelation, or a disappointment, or something in between. But getting there is thrilling and wondrously strange.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, profanity, adult themes. Starring: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst. Director: Jeff Nichols. Running time: 111 minutes. Theater: Flicks.