Sundance Review: 'The Nightingale,' Jennifer Kent's Followup to 'The Babadook' Is Not a Horror Film, But It's Even Scarier Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin and Damon Herriman
Published Jan 28, 2019It's not the film's fault, but we can certainly credit The Babadook for inspiring a bunch of chin-stroking blowhards to pontificate on how horror is "actually good" over the last few years. In fact, the film perfectly teed up director Jennifer Kent to cash in with another smart-scary movie for the pretentious hordes.
Instead, she's made an unspeakably ballsy thriller that's so graphically upsetting it will undoubtedly be a tough sell for most audiences.
The film is set in 1825 on a Tasmanian island that's in the midst of being colonized by the British. Don't let the old-timey talk or the costumes fool you, however — this is one hell of a brutal movie.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict who has been employed by a British lieutenant as repayment for her crimes. In addition to running the camp, she also sings for the soldiers in the mess hall. In addition, she's routinely raped by the lieutenant.
Yes, there's a near absurd amount of rape in the film (honestly half a dozen scenes, at least), along with violent depictions of slaughtered Aboriginal locals and even the murder of a baby. Though the Sundance audience was undoubtedly disturbed by these scenes, Kent explained that she intentionally focused on faces and reactions rather than bodies. That way, she said, we see their souls getting extinguished. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, but that makes the film all the more disturbing. It may not be visually upsetting, but it's emotionally graphic.
After the lieutenant and his cronies commit one last heinous act against Clare, they leave her to die at camp as they set out on a near-impossible journey through the jungle to another town. Instead, she awakens and decides to have her revenge. She hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a local Aboriginal man to guide her through the treacherous paths, and the pair form an unlikely bond.
What follows is a nightmarish journey through the jungle that includes a near-endless amount of brutal violence and terrifying suspense. The outback journey is so near impossible that the film occasionally feels like Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo mashed with a grindhouse rape revenge flick.
That said, Kent's distinctive touch gives it a truly unique tone that's hard to parse at first, but rest assured, the film will stick with you forever if you can stomach the traumatic viewing experience.
The Babadook was successful because of the meaning that could be gleaned from its minimalism. Here, Kent has made subtext into text. Offering an intersectional look at both colonialism and misogyny, the film is a jarring, maximalist look at the utter destruction that comes with white male entitlement. As cliché as it is to say, that makes The Nightingale another sadly relevant film, no matter what year in which it may take place. (Causeway Films)