First Look Review: Midnight Special

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80%
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Thrilling

Jeff Nichols returns with yet another beautifully constructed mystery, proving himself a master of many genres. The grand reveal could be seen as something of a let down, but this is still seriously audacious and encouraging filmmaking.

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One of America’s most quietly hardworking directors is finally back, tackling new ground altogether with an original sci-fi that not only nails its world in an instant, but also packs a considerable dramatic punch.

Jeff Nichols’ (Mud, Take Shelter) latest genre-bender finds regular alum Michael Shannon as a desperate father, forced to kidnap his own son and commit to life on the run after he finds that the boy possesses certain, often uncontrollable gifts. Joined on the road by mysterious muscle-man Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and the boy’s estranged mother (Kirsten Dunst), the duo duck and dive over ensuing religious fanatics and the meddling hands of the government (lead by a pre-Kylo Ren Adam Driver) in a desperate battle for survival.

Rest assured, there’s certainly a lot more to Nichols’ tale than just the above, but to add any more to the synopsis would likely prove unwise, considering the stunning amount of effort Nichols has thrown in to preserving the plot’s gradual reveal. Opening with a sequence that can only be effectively described as one of the best of the year, he truly hits the ground running, carving decades worth of exposition into everything from chase scenes to gun battles.

Every jump in story requires a just-as-significant jump in logic, but each leap is rolled out with such precision and elegance that never once does it prove an issue. After all, this is very noticeably the work of a director on the verge of something exceptional, and Midnight Special continues fighting through these insanely clever teases for almost its entire running time.

Where this, rather expectedly, runs into issues however is when Nichols eventually delivers the final bow: a huge, sprawling, and audacious reveal that although cleverly brought about and designed, saps a significant amount of the film’s originality and central drive. The fun is all in the build-up here, and when the time finally comes for that big reveal, for most, Nichols’ work is sadly not quite up to scratch.   

This will likely differ greatly based on individual perception, but the way in which Midnight Special‘s final twist rolls out leaves very little to the imagination. Had he given it a slightly wider birth and left more room for questioning, it’s very possible that Nichols could have been sitting on this generation’s answer to Amblin; E.T. meets The Goonies in a far less obvious way than the likes of Super 8. But instead, as it stands, it’s highly likely that a hefty dose of the film’s audience will walk away a little disappointed, given the scope possible from such a well-approached indie as this.

This shouldn’t sour the film too much though; Midnight Special remains one of the most confident and beautifully written sci-fi’s of the year, and despite some third-act issues, it still deserves a whole heap of praise. After all, Jeff Nichols remains one of the most exciting directors on the fringe of Hollywood right now, and it feels as if we should do everything to push him that little bit further up the pecking order.

Midnight Special (2016), directed by Jeff Nichols, will be released in the UK on 8th April by Entertainment One. Certificate 12A.   

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Former Film Editor, Film graduate and general supporter of all things moving-picture related. Accidentally obsessed with Taylor Swift. Long-time Ellen Page fanboy.

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