The Nightingale left me utterly broken and is one of the best films of the year
By Chase Hutchinson
By Chase Hutchinson
It's a rare thing to be able to give such praise to a film and also say that I may never watch it in its entirety again. That isn't to say I won't revisit certain sequences or parts in the future (especially with how the ending scene plays out) but this isn't a film where rewatchability is the goal. If anything, this observation is a testament to how impactful the entire story was and how generally distressing certain moments where. I say this as a person who is able to in my mind recognize that movies are a fictionalized telling of a story and that through movie magic things appear to be real while not being real themselves. This is likely a product of watching too many movies where you begin to see through the technical tricks and notice the strings being pulled. However, with The Nightingale, this was like watching a movie for the first time because of just how remarkably effective it is.
The story focuses initially on Clare, a convict seeking to earn her freedom only to endure horrific violence and subsequently seek vengeance upon the British officer who is responsible. She forms an initially fraught relationship with an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (who often goes by the blackbird) to assist in her journey. As the story progresses, they form a closer bond through their reflecting on their respective traumas. Both Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr are stunning in their performances as the unlikely pairing which made the pain that is inflicted upon them throughout the film all the more heart-wrenching. The film doesn't take it easy on you, the moments of pain and violence shock one to the core. At my screening, I frequently heard the door opening and closing as people left the theater.
The film often positions the audience right in the midst of the violence with no possibility to look away as some may want to. The scenes often hold and linger on the horror that is happening. These scenes are well constructed and even, for lack of a word, beautifully shot. This creates a strange juxtaposition of a gorgeous to look at an image that is also of an ugly and painful world. The characters endure near-constant threats of violence and there is little room for the audience to breathe. Even in some of the final moments with powerful and arresting images that are stunning to observe, your heart breaks at the weight of the world crushing down on the people that are doing everything they can to not buckle underneath it.
This film is a horror unlike anything that I've seen in recent memory
Jennifer Kent's previous film, 2014's The Babadook, was a smaller scale horror film that centered around the relationship between a mother and son attempting to heal from a loss that still reverberated through their lives. Her most recent film may be larger in scale but it still has echoes of these similar themes. However, the context that informs them is the unending colonial violence that brutalizes all that is perceived as a threat to it. The ways that this violence is inflicted upon the two main characters are similar but also different in important ways that the film doesn't shy away from. Some of the best scenes come from the two of them learning about each other around a campfire. These conversations are often confrontational but a shared understanding grows between them.
It is also worth acknowledging that even as Clare has endured her own trials, she is often cruel to Billy and the film doesn't let her off the hook for this. Even as she is enduring her own trauma and violence, she is seemingly unbothered by threatening violence on another. This willingness to have the main protagonist be a flawed one even as we as the audience roots for her is the film's strength and doesn't provide any easy answers to the resolution of their bond. The violence of the world still weighs down on them differently even as they both attempt to survive within it. Even in the moments where they are successful in their attempts to survive, they are not left unscarred. The violence that is inflicted on them and the violence they inflict upon others leaves an unshakable impact on them.
There are many nightmare sequences that have an incredibly smooth and graceful pace to them that when interrupted by the horrors of the world are among the best I may have ever seen. Often dream sequences can feel out of place or serve as lazy means to convey information to the audience. However, in this case, these sequences are ones that add so much to the film that to cut them would be a detriment to the arch of the story. It shows just how psychologically impactful their trauma has been. The two characters going through this journey of attempting to overcome trauma is a grueling one and demands a lot of the audience. It isn't easy viewing and it has no pretentions about trying to be. However, I would recommend that everyone seek it out at least once as the vision is a wholly original one.
How does one resolve a narrative about how violence is unresolvable?
The minor criticisms I have come about towards the end of the narrative which I will not discuss in detail as I want to preserve the feelings that come about towards the end. I think that some very specific scenes complicate the resolution in important and interesting ways while others detract from that. I acknowledge that a clean ending to this story is almost impossible as it shows a messy world that won't have a ending that can be easily tied up in a bow. The violence and terror of the world in which the characters are a part of will still exist. However, there are several scenes where the momentum slows way down and begins to feel somewhat lost. This isn't to say going down narrative sidestreets can't be a way to expand the world and the characters that make it up. Indeed, some of my favorite scenes are some of the narrative sidestreets where the characters just sit around a campfire.
But several sequences felt too far off track and often lacked any of the nuances that the story had built up to that point. It felt like these scenes could have either been rearranged or edited down to focus the priorities on expanding other aspects of the story that were richer with potential. Regrettably, these scenes feel like they are meant to serve as writing oneself out of a corner and attempt to move towards something more palpable than is consistent for the rest of the story. It's impossible to remove these scenes from the rest of the story without moving other things around, but it still would have better served the story had things been better structured in these moments.
With that being said, this small misstep did not take away from all the strengths of the film generally. It quickly regained focus and had an end scene that was one of the best of the year. It was both beautiful and disheartening in the same moments. It's not a perfect film, far from it. But neither is the world that it portrays. The characters have to overcome intense suffering and even in the small amount of catharsis that is experienced through their vengeance, that suffering is forever present. They will never escape it. They can only hope to live through it.