We’ve spent a lot of this year discussing the sophomore features directors who made quite a splash with their horror debuts. It’s something that you wouldn’t think we’d be discussing this much, but weirdly I can think of three movies that fit that specific dynamic. Jordan Peele followed up the massive Get Out with the incredibly strange Us, which I still think is a really solid second feature. Ari Aster moved on from the familial horror of Hereditary to the relationship horror of Midsommar. It’s been pretty solid. And, although it’s technically been out for a while now in more lucky markets, we’re now getting another sophomore film, this time from Jennifer Kent, director of the much beloved LGBT icon, the Babadook. I really enjoyed the Babadook, like most people seemed to, and it’s seemed strange that Kent hadn’t taken a second stab at making a movie yet. And, apparently the reason for that is because she’s been working on a very personal project that required quite a bit of research, the Nightingale. It’s a movie that has premiered a while back at some festivals, and which has gained quite a bit of notoriety. And, not entirely positive. It’s a very rough film, one that is dividing people due to its incredibly graphic nature. And, it certainly lived up to that reputation. This is a tough sit, featuring several incredibly graphic rape scenes that could honestly clear a theater. And, the question is “was it worth it?” And, I’m honestly still not sure.
The Nightingale tells the story of a woman named Claire Carroll who is living in Tasmania as a convict under the command of the British Army, specifically a Lieutenant Hawkins. She, her husband, and their daughter have technically served their time, but Claire is denied her freedom by Hawkins, who has become sexually obsessed with Claire, regularly raping her. And, eventually, she and her husband decide that they just need to flee, damn the rules. So, they prepare to escape the military camp and ride off into the night. Unfortunately, the night they chose is also the night that Hawkins has learned that he won’t be getting a promotion he feels is deserved to him. So, in a fury, he and his henchmen Sergeant Ruse and private Jago decide to hike to the other side of Tasmania so that they can get the promotion before the man who refused him can get there. But, in the process, he comes across Clare and her family trying to escape, and loses his mind. This results in him and his men killing Clare’s husband and daughter, raping her, and leaving her for dead. But, she doesn’t die. She wakes up the next morning, ready for revenge, and demands to know where Hawkins has gone. And, when she learns that he’s hiking through the Bush, she decides that that’s what she’s going to do to.
To do so Clare hires an Aboriginal tracker named Billy to follow Hawkins and his men through the Bush so that she can catch up and kill them. Billy isn’t exactly interested in this, having grown quite leery of the treachery of white people, but he needs to money. So, the two set out to follow Hawkins, and in the process are forced through several hellacious days in the Tasmanian wilderness. We then begin bouncing between Clare and Billy’s journey, and Hawkins’ journey. When we’re with Clare and Billy the film is about two people slowly growing closer through shared trauma of being on the lowest rung of society, finding camaraderie in a hatred of the English males who have ruined their lives, and the lives of their people. And the Hawkins scenes are just further proof that he’s a reprehensible human being, raping random women they come across, threatening murder, and just being the worst. Eventually though, they all catch up, and Clare finds herself unable to pull the trigger. So, Hawkins and his men move along, leaving Clare and Billy to die. But, they survive, and make it to the big city that Hawkins is heading for. Clare then attempts to get some revenge, marching in on a meeting that Hawkins is having with his fellow soldiers and humiliating him while also declaring all of his crimes. But, it’s Billy who finishes the deed, killing Hawkins and his men as they sleep, earning a bullet to the gut in the process. The two then flee from civilization, and sit on a beach as Billy bleeds to death, happy to have died a free man.
So yeah, not exactly a fun time at the movies. The Nightingale is a very visceral and intense film, one that gained some notoriety of scaring people out of the theater when it premiered, the depictions of rape and violence just too much for some people. And, I totally get that. This film is rough, and that seems to be Jennifer Kent’s intention. She wanted to tell a story set in the age of colonialism that didn’t pull any punches and showed it for the ugly, hateful, and violent time it was. And in that respect, it’s a huge success. But, as a film, it’s a little overstuffed. The Babadook was tight as a drum, perfectly balancing horror and suspense in a truly masterful way that breezed you right through its runtime. But, the Nightingale is a tad plodding, just a slow-paced ride through the nightmarish inhumanity of the story, but done in a way that just kind of feels like it’s circling the drain at time, leaving you kind of urging the movie to just get to the point. But, any complaints of the technical aspects of the film can’t touch the acting in the film, which is truly superb, especially lead actress Aisling Franciosi, who was absolutely phenomenal in this film. Once again, this is a rough movie, and Franciosi had a remarkable ability to draw the audience in, forcing you to live the experiences of this character, feel her thoughts, pains, terror, and hope, primarily just through her expressions. I’m still kind of split on this film, but I’ve certainly become interested in anything else Franciosi is going to be involved in, because a performance like this has to be a harbinger of future great work.
The Nightingale doesn’t exactly break any new ground in terms of realizations of historic horrors, but it does force the viewer to really sit in the reality of colonialism, and the acts of utter inhumanity that people have perpetrated against each other over the years. And, that primarily takes the form of Lieutenant Hawkins, who kind of becomes a larger than life monster throughout the film, but in a way that still feels somewhere within the bounds of reality. He’s a powerful white man, and he feels like he’s therefore entitled to whatever he wants in the world. And, when it’s denied to him, he still just takes it, at the expense of anyone around him. And, sadly, that’s been the way of history. The people who feel entitled to the world just take it from everyone else, through blood and action if need be, and the film is a stark reminder of the horrors that that mindset have reaped. But, at the same time, I found myself wondering about entitlement and storytelling. Because while this story is certainly revolves around Clare, it’s also the story of Billy, and I can’t help but wonder if his story, and thus the story of his people, were really Kent’s to tell. I’ve seen some things saying that she got permission from certain Aboriginal groups to tell the story, but I’ve also seen plenty of people complain that comparing the plight of the Tasmanian natives and the Irish is really apples to oranges, and thus offensive. And, I really don’t know the right answer. It could just be further entitlement, a white Australian telling the stories of the people that her ancestors victimized, or it could be a tale of shared camaraderie. Regardless, I think we can all agree that white men have been the source of a lot of problems in the world, and I guess your stock in that idea will determine your ultimate thoughts on the film.
The Nightingale was written and directed by Jennifer Kent, and released by IFC Films, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk