This review contains spoilers
I saw The Nightingale as part of the Seattle Film Festival around three weeks ago, meant to write a blog post about it and realized I needed much more time to process what I had seen. I can say one thing for certain: It’s the most violent film I’ve ever experienced in a theater. Sure, movies like The Human Centipede 2, Evil Dead, and other horror exploitation flicks may technically feature more on screen blood, but those films, while nasty and disturbing in their own right, are more digestible because of their desire to go over-the-top; to not only cross the line, but obliterate it with a sort of tongue-in-cheek nastiness that lets you know you’re in on the joke. The Nightingale’s violence is real and heavy. There’s not an ounce of irony or slickness or humor to dilute the brutality of what you’re seeing. Despite my overall negative feelings toward her film, I respect director Jennifer Kent’s desire to tell this story with grim honesty, and to show the violence for what it truly is – painful, scarring, and ugly.
The film critic in me loves to assign a grade to the film’s I’m reviewing, but sometimes a movie transcends easy labels. I’m choosing to give The Nightingale a “C” grade, which I will attempt to justify in this post, but the truth is, the film is neither “good” nor “bad” or any kind of similarly easy, simple identification. Kent has said, in defense of her film, which has inspired walkouts and outrage at festival screenings, that she wanted to make people feel something. In that sense, she has succeeded. The movie made me feel angry, frightened, numb, bored, sickened, depressed, and nauseous throughout the course of its overlong runtime. My problem with the film is that it never made me feel enlightened or hopeful. In an interview with Vulture, Kent said, “I can understand people not wanting to see things if they’ve had bad events happen in their lives and it’s triggering. I completely understand that, and I would protect people’s right to make that decision. But this to me really indicates a massive problem, because there are people who don’t want to accept that this happens and it’s a terrible thing.”
I get where Kent is coming from, and I respect her desire to tell a difficult story that confronts the reality of violence and the horrors of our past. Great films have been made that are extremely difficult to sit through. And I do believe that The Nightingale is not violent for the sake of being violent. It’s a movie about how violence shapes our lives. Yet, at the end of the day, there is very little to cling onto that isn’t brutality, grimness, and nihilism. If Kent’s point is that the violence of our history must be confronted in order to understand the violence of our present, that’s at least a point, but it’s a point that’s been made countless times in countless films.
To shed a little clarity for those who have yet to see the film (and likely will never, which I wouldn’t blame you for), the movie takes place in 1825 Tasmania, where our main character, an Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is working for a nasty, corrupt British soldier named Hawkins, played in one-note villain mode by Sam Claflin. Hawkins, after refusing to release Clare, rapes her one night after a party. She returns home to her husband and infant, where she must lie about the bruises on her body. When Hawkins’ request for a promotion is denied, he takes his anger and humiliation out on Clare and her family, in a lengthy sequence that will be the first of many potential walkouts for audience members. Clare is brutally gang raped by Hawkins and his soldiers, and forced to witness her husband and infant be murdered in front of her. The rest of the movie involves Clare following the soldiers through treacherous terrain in an attempt to track them down and get revenge. She is aided in her journey by an aboriginal man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who she reluctantly agrees to show her the way. Her racist beliefs toward the aborginals and her initial distrust of Billy slowly transformers into a sort of unlikely friendship throughout their journey.
Since both Clare and Billy share a connection of suffering at the hands of British soldiers, Kent insists on depicting brutality directed at both Clare and the aboriginal characters in the story. There’s interesting drama here that could have been explored, but Kent’s film is so focused on violence and suffering that it loses its way. I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of the 2006 The Hills Have Eyes. He wrote, “It is not faulty logic that derails ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, however, but faulty drama. The movie is a one-trick pony.” I felt the same way about The Nightingale. We have the white woman and the black man forming a bond over their suffering at the hands of white men, and the movie doesn’t do much other than hammer that point over and over again for nearly two and a half hours. What is really to be learned from this film? That human kind is capable of extraordinary cruelty? That toxic masculinity is a catalyst for much of this brutality? Most viewers will know this before watching The Nightingale, and I’m not sure many of them will come away feeling they’ve been enlightened about these subjects any more. The characters pretty much exist only to suffer, or to cause suffering. The British soldiers, particularly Hawkins, are so villainous they don’t come across as real people. There is one scene in the movie that works, and I wish Kent had infused the rest of the movie with the grey areas present in this particular scene. Clare tracks down a wounded soldier and mercilessly kills him. It’s an effective sequence, showing the extent of Clare’s pain and anger, the guilt of the pleading, wounded soldier, and Billy’s contempt and disgust at witnessing Clare’s explosion of rage and violence. The dynamics in this scene alone are interesting, and unfortunately never really expanded upon.
At numerous times throughout the film, I not only felt sickened by the violence, but offended by what I was seeing. There is constant cruelty aimed at the aboriginal characters in the film, with no redeeming value behind any of it. Yes, we can deduce that historically, Kent’s depictions of violence against aboriginals is not far from what happens in the film, but they only exist in the movie as plot points to establish how evil the British soldiers are. Kent’s ultimate message becomes muddled and lost behind the constant nihilism on display. The violence becomes numbing and gratuitous rather than essential to understanding the point.
Jennifer Kent is a filmmaker I greatly admire. The Babadook is one of the all time great horror films; a psychological, claustrophobic spook show with interesting observations on grief, trauma, and emotional healing. The Nightingale is clearly the product of a filmmaker with more on her mind than just grossing people out – it’s well-shot, well-acted, atmospheric, and effectively disturbing – but at some point, behind all the numbing violence, the message gets lost. Of course, that was my personal experience with the movie. Others might find it deeply emotional, important, and essential viewing. Most will be sickened and outraged. I’m somewhere in between, but ultimately, the movie doesn’t justify the experience it puts you through.