There hasn’t been a movie this year that has so consistently moved me as much as the violent, horrifying revenge film The Nightingale. A look back at some of the hundreds of reviews on this site will reveal I don’t give easy passes to revenge movies. Too often they’re passed off as exercises in catharsis that make the hero no better than the villain. But Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, along with a visceral and stirring breakout performance by Aisling Franciosi, brings so much sympathy to the film’s heroine only an emotionally-detached sociopath won’t feel moved by the protagonist’s plight and the irony of her acts.
It’s 1820 Tazamania, and all the stories you heard about Australia being settled by convicts is true. Franciosi plays Clare, an Irish convict who sings for her supervising officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin) between serving meals to his troops. Further dehumanized, she is also bent over a table by Hawkins during a harrowing rape scene that, if the violation weren’t bad enough, ends in the demise of her husband and infant child at the hands of two doltish soldiers waiting their turns to have their way with her. After they abandon her to the ruin of her family, she sets out to kill them all.
The unflinching horror with which Kent explores these acts, indeed place you on Clare’s side. However, Kent stops short of showing her protagonists’ pursuit for vengeance as a fair solution. It’s a tough journey to take, complicated by the ambivalent company of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker, who adds another unsettling dimension to the cruelty of the colonizers. Still, it’s a worthwhile experience for those in search of filmmaking that reassures us of our humanity while confronting its darkest turns. It’s shadow work as cinematic entertainment. Those who would rather be reassured or comforted by movies should stick to Disney and Marvel productions or even the shallow horrors of slasher movies.
Hollywood never does violence right. It’s a key source of entertainment for so many different kinds of films. It’s an element of flicks where violence is unevenly favored above sex by the MPAA, ironically protecting young people’s eyes from something natural while inviting them to revel in all sorts of graphic horror. It’s why it’s OK to show a villain dismembered in Avengers: Endgame, but God forbid you might show something sexual between these characters. Even auteurs are guilty of it. Only recently, I had to knock Quentin Tarantino’s latest (Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood has heart to outshine violence) for its cop out of a coda that undermined the carefully constructed sentiment that came before it. Kent, however, uses violence right (and skips MPAA approval), as she does not hold back from the horrors that unfold in her movie, yet her work never feels exploitative.
I’ve never felt anything like this since David Cronenberg gave us A History of Violence (2005) where brutal, violent acts driven by ego were pushed to such awful heights that it turned the visceral joy of comeuppance to disturbing, cringe-inducing disgust. The violence was always too much, but it was too much with a purpose: to examine a viewer’s lack of sensitivity and push them toward sympathy. While Cronenberg’s film was about masculine-fueled anger unleashed to brutal lengths, Kent takes it to a different feminine level in her film. Franciosi gives such a stirring and passionate performance, she drew tears from this writer whenever her character cried on screen — even while she commits a heinous, extended act of murder. Her anguish carries the thrill of revenge but twists to its draining lack of satisfaction. She can never truly right the acts done to her be resorting to that barbaric notion of eye for an eye. This is visceral filmmaking at its finest.
I caught The Nightingale at this year’s edition of Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival (5 recommendations at Miami Film Fest + New indie rock – Independent Ethos Radio Hour Episode 5). It was a film that I lobbied for the Rene Rodriguez Critics Award during jury duty at the fest, and I was happy to see it win, even though Kent wasn’t there to pick up the prize (a political aspect of prize-bestowing at festivals). But this fine film deserved recognition because there are so few of its kind, the kind that forces us to look into the abyss and come out wanting to be better for it.
The Nightingale runs 136 minutes and is not rated. It opens in our South Florida area in the following counties and theaters on Friday, Aug. 30:
BROWARD: Classic Gateway Theatre only
PALM BEACH: CMX Downtown at The Gardens 16 only
For screenings in other parts of the U.S., check your local listings. IFC Films sent us an online screener for the purpose of consideration for the Rene Rodriguez Critics Award at this year’s Miami Film Festival.