"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Nightingale

THE NIGHTINGALE, now in limited theatrical release, is Australian director Jennifer Kent’s followup to THE BABADOOK. That 2014 debut of hers was a critical sensation and cult hit that made less than 1/34 the box office of ANNABELLE the same year, but it reached a ton of people, including many who don’t usually bother with the genre. Certainly some of the hype was about it being directed by a woman, and I think that’s relevant in that its scares are based in motherhood. I can point you to plenty of pro-woman horror movies, but few that are about such specifically female fears.

That made Kent one of those directors whose names get reported as being on the short list to direct every WONDER WOMAN or CAPTAIN MARVEL that comes along. She told Indiewire “I did entertain one blockbuster seriously and I thought, yeah, I could give this something really special. But then ultimately I heard about the way the films are made, and I thought it would kill me.” So five years later she still hasn’t been sucked into the ol’ i.p. game, unless you count developing an adaptation of the 19th century lesbian thriller book Alice + Freda Forever. Instead she made this.

I think THE NIGHTINGALE is a very good movie, and it seems to be getting mostly good reviews, but I feel like it has almost zero chance of catching on the way THE BABADOOK did, because number one, no obvious Halloween costumes, and number two the content is more straight-forwardly disturbing. Here’s how I described it on Twitter after seeing it at the Seattle International Film Festival last May:

TRUE GRIT meets I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE in Australia. And about colonialism, misogyny and white supremacy.”

If that still sounds pretty commercial to you, please note that it’s shot in a square format similar to COLD WAR and MID90s. I’m sorry, but mainstream audiences do not go for 1.375:1. Just ask them. Ask them what they think of 1.375:1. They’ll tell you they don’t care for 1.375:1, especially in an Australian rape revenge western with political subtext. No sir.

It takes place in 1825. Clare (Aisling Franciosi, The Fall) is a young convict from Ireland living in a British penal colony in Tasmania. She serves food and cleans and they make her sing. All the soldiers there seem like sexually harassing scumbags, but the worst is Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Cliflin, THE HUNGER GAMES, ADRIFT), who’s made all the more hissable by looking at first glance like the clean cut nice guy. He forces her to stay beyond her sentence so he can keep raping her, which she hides from her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby, HACKSAW RIDGE). And the Lieutenant seems to almost believe his own bullshit that he’s helping her out.

When the shit hits the fan it results in the devastating deaths of her husband and baby the night before Hawkins and a couple of his guys split to another post up north where he might get a promotion. The officials won’t do anything for Clare but file a report, so she takes her horse and a gun and goes after the motherfuckers herself.

A friend, another convict who refuses to go with her, convinces her to hire Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a local Aboriginal tracker he knows, so she won’t get lost and die. Billy takes some convincing – when the soldiers came before her, he told them to fuck off – but she does not act grateful. In fact she treats him like shit, only calling him “boy” and always pointing her musket at him like she can’t trust him. It’s an interesting feeling to be rooting for Clare to extract her savage revenge and then have to transition to “well hold on, now, be nice to this guy.” And Billy is instantly charming with his bleak humor and refusal to pretend like he’s happy about any of this. Their bonding is long and slow and requires a whole lot of generosity on his part. And of course I’m a sucker for that shit.

Damon Herriman plays one of Hawkins’ men, Ruse, and as soon as I saw him I thought “Oh shit, that’s Dewey Crowe from Justified!” Then his voice came out and sounded totally different and I thought “That’s gotta be Dewey Crowe from Justified, right? Nobody else would look like that,” before I realized “Oh shit, Dewey Crowe from Justified is Australian!” Anyway, he’s good, and even though he’s kind of a sidekick he gets more to do than he did as Charles Manson in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

Hawkins also brings along a couple of convicts to carry his luggage for him. I like the symbolism of Eddie (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC), who’s around nine years old. He works hard enough that the boss is impressed, gives him a gun and says he’ll promote him, a technique that simultaneously grooms the kid to be his toady and sadistically humiliates Ruse. Hawkins tells Eddie not to cry and to “be a man” – the ol’ toxic masculinity. Eddie is the next generation and he still has some sensitivity, a little bit of a moral compass, but he’s losing it. He tries to do what he’s told. He doesn’t hesitate to hold a black man at gun point. It’s terrifying.

And also it’s fucked up how casual everybody is about there being a little kid who’s a convict! Hawkins holds it over him like it’s a given that he deserves punishment for whatever he did (if he did anything at all).

Like many of the serious revenge movies that manage to pull it off there’s a combination of excitement for her to get these bastards and recognition that violence is ugly and bad and hard, especially when you’re new to it. It’s not usually her thing, but she gives it her best shot. She’s small and looks very young but she’s worked all her life and she’s not gonna give up. Her eyes look tired but burning with a bitterness that will fuel her until she achieves her goal.

There’s a powerful scene (SPOILER FOR IMPORTANT LATE-IN-THE-MOVIE SCENE) where they come to a small town that does not treat indigenous people kindly, but a very old man offers them hospitality. Against his wife’s wishes he gets Billy to sit at the table to eat with them. But Billy breaks down crying and explains that this town is his country, this is where his people lived, and he expected them to still be there. Now he sees that the white men came in and killed them and built their houses on their land. And this guy who a minute ago seemed unusually kind and progressive, he doesn’t know how to handle this conversation. How could he? So he just slurps his soup. Mary had a little lamb…

I think that’s kind of the whole meaning of the thing. Clare thinks she has it bad, and fuck yeah, she does. That doesn’t mean Billy doesn’t have it worse in some ways. Especially because people like her think it’s okay to take their shit out on him. She’s gotta stop seeing it that way. Maybe we can’t undo what’s been done, but we can acknowledge it, not be so fuckin defensive about it. Be sympathetic and be there for each other instead of worrying about being blamed or fighting to make sure somebody else is on the bottom.

This may be more a sign of the times than of the movie, but this is the first time I heard a sort of trigger warning before a film festival movie. Most of the discussion has been about the rape scenes, but the frank depiction of violent racism toward the natives is also hard to watch. I saw an older black couple who had been very excited about the movie in line walk out during an upsetting scene of degradation.

(There was also a bizarre incident where the woman next to me couldn’t control her nervous yelping whenever a gun went off, and the guy in front of her kept turning around and giving her mean looks, then she apparently kicked his chair so he hit her on the leg and they started yelling at each other. I’m pretty sure this is purely caused by a confluence of two strange people and has nothing to do with the particular movie, but I thought I would share it with you anyway.)

If the type of things I’ve described are not a barrier to you then you should see THE NIGHTINGALE. It’s among the best movies I’ve seen this year, and I look forward to whatever Kent does next. She started as an actress, by the way, so it’s time to figure out which character is “Lab Lady” in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY.

P.S. I recommend this Vulture piece by Angelica Jade Bastien which ponders “what it means for rape scenes to be filtered through the female gaze.”

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 29th, 2019 at 12:43 pm and is filed under Reviews, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “The Nightingale”

  1. I’m a little bit worried about the hour 2 hours running time. Seems long to spend in that kind of misery. Is it 30 minutes of misery in the beginning before the journey of revenge, or is it like 45 + minutes? That’s the worst about films like I SPIT On YOUR GRAVE and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT when they spent really long time on rape and torturer. Of course, this is a drama and not a rape-revenge film, but this type of film has a danger of draining me out after just the first hour. I can see this being a very upsetting 2 hours 16 minutes.

  2. I desperately wanted to love this one (I still think THE BABADOOK is one of those rare indie movies which actually deserved all the hype it got) but I ended up only really liking it (instead of loving it), which kind of disappointed me given that if ever there was an audience for this particular movie, it has to be me.

    I think my main issue is the structure; I’m 100% on-board for a rape-revenge movie with a bunch of racist/colonialist/sexist/classist text (it’s not subtext), but I think the rape-revenge part is structured poorly, too meandering and distracted to build much tension. I appreciate that a movie this woke and issues-y is also 100% committed to its fulfilling its genre duties, but I think it could have been more elegantly constructed for buildup and payoff and still got to all the content it wants to get to.

    I also don’t think Aisling Franciosi quite has what it takes to do a movie like this; she’s definitely working hard, but considering the extremes this movie pushes her to, I never quite felt like the actress got as mega as the part required. Essie Davis in BABADOOK had me 100% convinced that she was spiraling into violent madness; Franciosi just looks really tired and upset. She’s in no way bad, but when you have a part this extreme, you need a performance which matches it, and I don’t think that’s quite the case here.

    Fortunately Baykali Ganambarr is absolutely fucking terrific, and Sam Cliflin is maybe even better as a despicable sociopath who is so perfectly a product of a despicable, sociopathic system that he genuinely seems to think he’s the victim here.

    Anyway, it’s a really superb movie, just one of those movies which is so good I can’t help but be disappointed that it’s not quite great.

  3. Ghost — Actually the misery is kind of sprinkled throughout; the reason she wants her revenge is established pretty quickly, but the movie kind of expands the pain beyond its main character as it goes along. It’s cumulatively a lot of suffering, but for my money it’s not quite as emotionally deadening because it’s not as concentrated (on the other hand, that also means you’re never quite past it; there isn’t really a part where it switches from rape to revenge and now you can have some fun, so definitely don’t watch it if you’re not in a good headspace to get really overwhelmed by how fucking terrible humans can be).

  4. Starring Jon Snow’s mother! How could ya leave that out?

  5. Whoops, messed up the name field. In any case, I’ll have to check “Lyanna” out.

  6. Whenever I see a scene like Hawkins and his cronies coming to threaten her family, I always rationalize how she could get out of it with her husband and baby alive. Like, “Tell the soldiers to let you feed the baby and then you’ll have sex with them once it’s asleep.” But of course it doesn’t matter what you say. Not that it’s her responsibility to appease them, but even if she’d said that they’d do something else to scare the baby and it’s not like they’re reasonable enough to wait their turn to rape her.

    I think an important thing the movie shows is that people, women especially, may think that if they just appease the rapist it’s easier and safer than confronting him. But of course it’s not because the Hawkinses of the world keep taking more. I certainly wish the husband could see through the taunts and say, “Oh, he wants me to fight so he has an excuse to kill me” but again, if he’d had that foresight it probably wouldn’t have saved him. They came there determined to get what they wanted.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that in my maturity, I’ve realized that rationalizing these situations is besides the point. You’ll never say the perfect thing to escape societal dangers. Changing society is impossible, but it’s still easier than trying to be responsible for all of it.

  7. BABADOOK is the one hipster horror movie that I think merits its reputation, getting down off its high horse to deliver some actual scares while still doing all the “Well, what you fail to understand is that the movie is REALLY about [social issue]” subtext stuff that that Internet seems to think is more important than not being boring as fuck. Which means I will check this one out, even though the length and Academy ratio leave me skeptical. I truly believe that an elongated runtime can benefit a movie that is stuffed with detail and incident (like ONCE UPON ON TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD) but becomes a case of diminishing returns in movies with simpler premises that run on intensity and atmosphere. I put pretty much every single horror/horror-adjacent movie that isn’t DAWN OF THE DEAD in that later category (my ideal length for this kind of thing is 87 minutes including credits) so we’ll see if Kent can change my mind about that.

    You couldn’t pay me to watch that lighthouse movie from the VVITCH guy, though.

  8. Fine! I’ll cancel my Paypal/Venmo to you then…

  9. I didn’t like Babadook but that’s mostly on me. I don’t really like obnoxious kids and this kid was obnoxious.

  10. Mr. M — for what it’s worth, NIGHTINGALE is definitely stuffed with detail and incident, even if the premise is a pretty simple one. Can’t defend that aspect ratio, though. The world has spoken in a single voice unequivocally rejecting the 1.375:1 ratio. Using it is the cinematic equivalent of picking a fight in a bar.

  11. The length isn’t that unusual for a western. It’s shorter than RIO BRAVO or SILVERADO, or obviously the more epic ones like THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. It didn’t seem long to me.

  12. Over 2 hours is still pretty long for a western, only those with big stars and big budgets tend to be that long. Most of the cheaper ones are under 90 minutes. I don’t mind the length or the aspect ratio, Academy can look great if it’s used correctly. Unfortunately this is probably not gonna get be screened anywhere near me.

  13. There’s no ‘proper’ length for any genre of film (Well, MAYBE horror. That’s a tough tone to sustain for 180 minutes without wearying your audience.). One of a director’s most important jobs is to balance how much time they need to tell the story while also keeping the audience properly entertained/entranced throughout. If the director fails at that, yeah, it sucks, but if they get it right I don’t care how long it is.

    A good recent example is ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. It’s pretty long, and Rick Dalton chain smokes like a motherfucker through the whole thing. And while I thought about slipping outside for a smoke of my own (quite often), I never did. Coz I was genuinely enjoying just hanging out with these characters.

  14. Point being, a good film is as long as it needs to be. And if I’m paying $20 bucks to see it at the Alamo (food and beer and stuff included, of course), I’d rather get as much bang for my buck as possible. As long as it’s all at least somewhat entertaining, diverting, or enlightening. Shit, I finally just saw BONE TOMAHAWK and loved the many scenes where it’s just three dudes walking to a mountain.

  15. “There’s no ‘proper’ length for any genre of film. ((Well, MAYBE horror. […])”

    I would say comedy is THE definite genre that benefits from a short runtime. Most of them lose steam around the 80 minutes mark and out of those that run 2 hours and more, only very few are still funny once the end credits roll. And I’m not just talking about Apatow shit here. Even some of the classic slapstick extravaganzas like IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD could use a good chunk. And I say that as a guy who loves overlong slapstick extravaganzas!

  16. CJ, you are absolutely right-comedy IS the flip side of horror, after all-and I can’t believe that didn’t occur to me last night. It’s a Hollywood staple: Get ’em in, crack ’em up, next show. Money all day long.

    I do think it’s funny (ha, ha), tho, that whenever I pop in with a comment it’s usually you who responds. I wonder why that is.

  17. That’s a good question. Kinda like why I recently always type “use” instead of “lose” and only notice it hours or even a day later.

  18. I liked this one quite a bit. I especially liked the relationship between Clare and Billy, which was touching but also difficult and complicated. Not at all overly-progressive or modern, which is one of my pet peeves in period films.

    Those of you who enjoyed this and are in the mood for more grimy Tasmanian misery should check out one of the two recent films made about escaped convict, bushranger and alleged cannibal Alexander Pearce, THE LAST CONFESSION OF ALEXANDER PEARCE and VAN DIEMEN’S LAND, both very good. There’s also the much-sillier DYING BREED, which is a WRONG-TURN style backwoods-cannibal horror movie about descendants of Pearce.

  19. Crusty — I’m glad you said that, because with the nonstop brutality in this one getting most of the attention, I think it’s too rarely mentioned how great the central relationship is. And that was by no means a sure thing; obviously, they were going to gradually come to like and respect one another, that was pretty much a given, but it could so easily have been an easy, phony, feel-good thing. Instead, the way their relationship gradually evolves is impressively natural and gradual. It feels earned in a way that most film relationships of this sort do not, and that gives it a lot more power than the somewhat rote premise would suggest. A movie this mean needs to have a beating heart buried at its center, and the fact that we can really invest in this relationship provides that heart subtlety but effectively.

  20. This is one of those “It’s good, but…” movies. Kent clearly knows what she’s doing and I’m not going to second-guess her aspect ratio or her decision to include so many rape scenes that my wife & I literally lost count of how many rapes there had been. Obviously the point is that we have to reckon with the past and we ain’t gonna get there by glossing over the more uncomfortable parts. BUT the thing about movies that have a lot of hard-to-watch stuff in them is that they’re hard to watch.

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