Saturday, August 24, 2019


Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is too honest and too true to satisfy with easy answers. Its setup is pure rape-revenge melodrama thriller, but its plot’s progression throws complications in the development to enhance its resistance of typical genre thrills. It makes tragedy quotidian, the price of being alive as an oppressed class. Set with all the grim grit and grime in the frontier Western outback of colonial Australia, the movie finds an Irish woman (Aisling Franciosi) an indentured servant at a military outpost. She’s years past earning her freedom, but the sneering British commander (Sam Claflin) refuses to give her the paperwork. When her husband (Michael Sheasby) dares confront him on this fact, the Brit responds by raping the woman, murdering the man, and killing their baby. This sequence is among the most unendurable brutalities I’ve ever witnessed in a film — unflinching without being explicit, so strong in its sound design of a wailing baby and slamming bodies, and quick shots of rough gestures. So painful it is that I was relieved when the silence following a cut to black was broken by an audience member softly gasping, “Oh, God.” The woman is left for dead. She summons the courage to report the brutality to a higher regional authority. The old man behind the desk sniffs at her to calm down and watch her tone. “You expect me to believe a woman’s word over a soldier’s?” he asks, even as she clutches her infant’s corpse. It turns out the culprit and his men have just struck out for another town days away, so she saddles her horse, grabs her gun, and hires an Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her catch them. The movie wears its ideas on the surface, torturous developments gripped tightly and simply as the tension-filled pairing — each deeply suspicious of the other — slowly realize they’re both victims, and should put aside their differences to fight back.

But rather than accelerate into Tarantino-esque fantasy of historical vengeance (as good as those are), the movie goes slow, gathering dread and letting the sick sensation of its early implications settle and churn. After the brutal opening, I wanted nothing more than to see the men responsible brought maximum pain. But the movie sits in the long journey with its lead, as the deepest of mourning and the strongest of trauma settle on her like a roiling storm, conflicting her intentions and dragging her steps slower and slower. Kent, whose previous film was the excellent, chilling, depression-monster horror movie The Babadook, here roots the terror in the realities of life for an Irish woman and an Aboriginal man in this time of brutal white British male domination. It trades on Westerns' iconography — the lone rider, the rifle, the horse, the native guide, the sun on the horizon, and the silhouetted figure in the doorway to wide open spaces. But its cold digital clarity locates a specific and overwhelming stifling world. Every character — even our lead — participates in the systems creating the brutal conditions: racism, colonialism, patriarchy. Everyone drips in it: the casual misogyny, the sexual violence, the cruel prejudices. A helpful man snaps at his wife. People sympathetic and evil alike growl “boy” at older servants of color. Threat of harm hangs over interactions. The movie is a cauldron of righteous fury, and of bleak reality. It quakes with justified rage at the worst of men, and knows that, in mankind’s direst moments, there can be no happy solution. We are left with no good options. The damage has been done. To kill one evil man, no matter how narratively or personally satisfying, nonetheless leaves in place the evil systems that allow for him. Kent painstakingly drains every bit of potential payoff from her genre setup, leaving only the emptiness, futility, and pain.

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