Cruelty is currency, and salvation is nothing more than a branch thrown into a ravaging, rapid river. This is the world Jennifer Kent throws her audience, unwillingly, into for her sophomore feature, The Nightingale. A divisive and often outright dread-inducing picture, Kent’s film rides through the Tasmanian wilderness with a steadfast purpose, to confront and kill the colonizing demons that haunt her main characters by body and land. To an extent, the vindictiveness of Kent’s picture thrives in the lush greenery of Tasmania. But the bonds that hold her characters together break under pressure.
Under the guise of imperialist stalwarts, colonizers from England have unrelenting evil running through their veins in this film. The “I exist, therefore I deserve” condition is vulgar in its truth from these men; an air of simply deserving just by being. Either by exulting their cruel behavior or simply observing but not reporting on one another, this is the world in which Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) must maneuver in order to gain her freedom and set up a new life. But after one night of unabashed cruelty, shown at its most grotesque and even triggering, Clare seeks revenge for all that she has lost, seeking only what she can take back. On this journey of revenge, Clare is given a guide — or rather, a guide is forced to take her along the path to find her abusers. Mangana “The Blackbird,” or Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as the white men have dubbed him, travels with Clare as they find their paths run parallel to one another. They don’t intersect, but they travel to the same destination.
The Nightingale is sparse on any sort of comfort. There’s barely any at all to have beyond Clare and Billy’s shared trauma. The pair, in the context of a colonizing Tasmania, are at odds from the offset of the film. But in their shared trauma find some sort of solace, physically becoming closer to one another in order to find safety, comfort, and any form of salvation that can come from the coils that have them bound to the white men they seek. It’s a frustrating bond to watch unfold. Colonization bore racism, and as such, Clare finds herself, in spite of her own positionality, on a high horse directing and threatening Billy. It’s not their shared trauma that initially brings them together, but instead their shared abuser. Which is where the film both stumbles and succeeds the most.
Kent never fully investigates how and why Billy and Clare come together to form a quasi-bond born out of a desire for freedom from their traumatic past beyond the abuser they share. Kent’s narrative aligns the idea that trauma, regardless of the varying pains or the lived experiences of those who suffer it, is trauma and that’s that. It’s the concept that Kent leans into, only showing Clare’s and merely alluding to Billy’s. Still, as a viewer bearing witness to their journey confronting that same desire to see both of these internally dead souls at last reach some form of solace, there’s catharsis to be found here, but little salvation.
Still, The Nightingale is boldly captured and crafted under Kent’s eye. Observing the murmurs of toxicity that grew into palpitations and firm beats under the historic context, it’s revolting in its accuracy. For a filmmaker building a narrative, there is more to be desired here, but in the thrilling pace and abject cruelty, the guttural response is fiercely focused to the point where Kent seems to become repetitive when focusing her lens on the assailants. There’s not much beyond the opening act and the conversations between Billy and Clare that need to lean the audience further into a need to see some form of justice or retribution.
The thread continuously woven throughout The Nightingale is a scintilla of release, the need for an exhale after the two-hour hyperventilating and agitating tale Kent is threading through the Tasmanian wilderness. Without the investigation or the realization of Clare and Billy’s lived experiences, their differences and shared abuser take stock over the film’s meaning and becomes a bit of a platitude; The Nightingale’s voice tends to crack under the continuing rage of the men’s succinct, intentional brutality. It’s a tempestuous vehicle for revenge and justice, but it is one that Kent, after weaving the same thread, finally stitches tightly enough to be donned on an anxiety-ridden young woman about to sing for men who do not deserve the light of day, let alone the song of a fragile bird.
The Nightingale belts its most stunning ballad when the focus lies in the journey, emotional and spiritual, between Clare and Billy. Coming to terms with their differences, Kent highlights their shared anger but never distinguishes the differences in their trauma. The overwrought maliciousness of the film’s superiority-complex-bearing men does its work painting colonization and imperialism as the greatest assailant of the world, but it’s validated again and again when the pain is already trapped in the bodies of its audience. Still, Kent has crafted an intense, exhilarating thrill ride that only writhes when the pain is too much to bare. Kent is not shy to cruelty, and audiences who are uncomfortable with accounting for their biases, the benefactors and benefiters of pain, would do well to watch these birds as they struggle to break loose from their cage.
The opening trauma of the movie shook me to my core. I considered walking out and not looking back. In college, I went through something that left me cold, broken, and in some ways seeking revenge in the same way as Clare. It took me years of healing and new bonds to shake off the cold sweats at night, those memories of the unspeakable pain. I couldn’t have watched this movie to its end just a few years ago, hell maybe a year ago. But it was a cathartic experience for me to see how this story played out, even if it wasn’t exactly the type of satisfaction I thought I wanted.
My favorite movie of the year.