Combustible Celluloid
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With: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby, Matthew Sunderland, Magnolia Maymuru, Christopher Stollery, Nathaniel Dean, Claire Jones, Luke Carroll
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
MPAA Rating: R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality
Running Time: 136
Date: 08/08/2019

The Nightingale (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Suite Revenge

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Following her extraordinary 2014 horror movie The Babadook, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent's sophomore film The Nightingale goes the non-horror route, but like Jordan Peele's Get Out it nonetheless taps into a dark, vicious mood of the moment.

Opening Friday in Bay Area theaters — after a pair of screenings at last spring's SF Film Festival — The Nightingale is set nearly 200 years ago, in Australia, but feels stingingly current.

It's a grueling sit, and might not warrant a second viewing, but a first time through is a must.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a convict that has finished serving her time, has married a kind man, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and has an infant child.

The title comes in because Clare has a beautiful voice and is called upon to sing for a band of rowdy, drunken, groping British soldiers.

But Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who hates his low-level posting in Van Diemen's Land, refuses to sign her release papers. He prefers instead to take out his frustrations by raping her every now and then.

Aidan notices a bruise on her neck and demands justice, an act that leaves Clare's entire world crumbling around her.

She takes her husband's horse, hires an Aboriginal guide, Billy (dancer Baykali Ganambarr, making his agile acting debut) and starts off through the woods to find and kill her tormenter.

Given that The Nightingale runs 2 hours and 16 minutes, this is no swift story like Coralie Fargeat's tense, cat-and-mouse movie Revenge, released here last year. No, The Nightingale is more like an odyssey into the soul.

After the initial brutality sets up the story, Kent tracks the journey through the wilderness, cutting back and forth between the two parties.

Hawkins travels with underlings Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood), as well as three prisoners, treated as slaves.

The youngest, a proud boy named Eddie (Charlie Shotwell), boasts at how much he can carry, how hard he can work, and Hawkins takes a liking to him, teaching him how to shoot, etc.

But Hawkins is a climber and is only concerned with his own advancement; he's inept, but blames his inadequacies on others. He leaves in his wake a trail of raped women and dead boys, and his response is, "who are you going to believe: me, a white officer, or a lowly prisoner?"

Yet Kent paints him as human. He's evil, to be sure, but his motivations are recognizably (perhaps too recognizably) human. Thus, when she cuts to his portion of the story, it resonates as much as the "good" half. Neither half falls short of the other.

On her side, Clare, who is initially repelled by her black-skinned guide, comes to respect him and learn from him. For example, he provides a natural salve to stop her painful production of unused breast milk.

Certainly, the movie has a little bit of the "black savior" motif, in which his pure, spiritual ways are seen as superior to her crude, white ways, but it works in this case, given the character extremes.

The Nightingale also takes plenty of moments to demonstrate a villainous racism — besides Billy, two other major black characters meet a separate fate — which cuts to the core and feels ripped from the headlines.

It's not a horror movie, technically, but it's akin to two classic 1970s grindhouse movies that are, today, considered horror: Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left and Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave.

Those movies also tapped into something that was happening in the zeitgeist, the frustration women felt in a world of men, but the difference is that Kent is actually a woman. She sees beyond compartments, beyond black-and-white.

In The Nightingale, as in the other movies, revenge is initially the goal, but the end result goes beyond such a simple concept.

Clare learns that it's one thing to snuff out evil, but it's another thing entirely to try to be good in a world where evil dominates, and to continue to persevere with an unwavering heart.

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