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Non-Review Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale arrives as Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook, and represents a slightly different sort of horror.

The Babadook was one of the best horror films of the decade, a creeping and unsettling look at a mother’s depression as she tried to work through her complicated feelings towards her own son. The Nightingale is something quite different, essentially a frontier western about a woman who sets out to avenge herself upon the British soldiers who inflicted a terrible suffering upon her and her family. As Clare tracks these men through the wilderness with an aboriginal guide named Billy, she finds herself confronted with the true nightmares of colonial Australia.

Eyes frontier.

The Nightingale belongs to a rich tradition of Australian westerns including modern classics like The Proposal, stories that play on the frontier myth and explore the country’s deeply troubled and unsettled history. Kent’s direction is tense and claustrophobic, refusing to ever let the audience look away from the horrors inflicted upon the continent by the European settlers who presumed to claim it as their own. The Nightingale is a bleak and cynical piece of film, one that is occasionally suffocating and dizzying in its portrayal of man’s capacity for inhumanity.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of The Nightingale is how – for all its unflinching brutality and refusal to offer trite sentimentality – the film advances an argument for intersectionalism. As Clare journeys deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness, she discovers that the suffering inflicted upon her and her family is just one expression of a more primal and insidious violence, and that perhaps she has more in common with Billy than she might originally think.

Not so hot to trot.

Kent shoots The Nightingale in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is an interesting choice on a number of levels. Most obviously and immediately, it affects how Kent portrays the wilderness into which Clare and Billy are wandering. The Nightingale is not interested in the frontier as a vast and limitless horizon, a huge stretch of land so vast and ripe with potential that it would struggle to be contained within Cinerama or VistaVision. Instead, The Nightingale presents the frontier as incredibly dense and overwhelming; branches cluttering up paths, leaves in travelers’ faces, forests that are so deep they might swallow a person whole.

This creative choice also informs how Kent portrays Australia itself, eschewing the sorts of panaromas that one expects from a western. The Nightingale is a beautiful film, featuring a number of striking establishing shots and some wonderful scenery, but the aspect ratio creates a situation where the screen is almost as tall as it is wide. As a result, Kent builds her compositions vertically rather than horizontally. Characters are frequently climbing up hills, or framed in the shadow of mountains. Instead of wide open spaces, The Nightingale sketches a portrait of a frontier that always threatening to overwhelm the characters.

Burnt out.

These vertical compositions serve an important thematic purpose as well. They constantly remind the audience of the social hierarchies and systems at play, even in a region as seemingly lawless as the Australian wilderness. Even before the horrific inciting incident that sparks Clare’s vendetta against Lieutenant Hawkins, The Nightingale makes it clear that Clare exists under his thumb and at his whims. Billy is also aware of that stark reality. “I’ve spent years civilising this land,” Hawkins boasts at one point, and it is clear that his definition of “civilising” means imposing familiar social structures to place men like him at the top.

The Nightingale is a film of stark beauty. Radek Ladczuk’s cinematography is striking. As brutal and violent as the frontier might be, there is also something strangely alluring about it. Kent and Ladczuk repeatedly blur the boundaries between the country’s physical geography and the dreamscape inhabited by the characters. Some of the night-time shots have a particularly ethereal quality to them, which often feel expressionistic; spectres emerging from the shadows into the light of a campfire, a horse riding up a hill towards a house framed by a dead and mangled tree, even a horse following a well-worn path by moonlight.

All fired up.

The other interesting aspect of Kent’s choice of aspect ratio is the way in which the frame is almost perfectly proportioned to accommodate faces. To Kent, those faces are just as important as the landscape they inhabit. The Nightingale is punctuated by intense and probing close-ups of characters’ faces, as if scrutinising them and inviting the audience to stare at these people head-on; most notably characters like Clare and Billy, but also Lieutenant Hawkins and his pathetic band of violent and entitled murderers.

The Nightingale is not an easy watch or a pleasant one. While never exploitative, Kent is unflinching in her portrayal of brutality and violence. The film never shies away from documenting the kind of suffering inflicted on people like Clare and Billy, which can make it very difficult to watch. There are points at which The Nightingale feels like an endurance test. It is notable that Kent came to The Nightingale from The Babadook. There is a tangible sense that The Nightingale is as much a horror movie as The Babadook, just rooted in historical horrors that are not obscured through metaphor.

The Riflewoman.

The Nightingale deserves credit for its refusal to temper its bleakness or darkness. At one point, an aboriginal in chains helpfully summarises the film’s perspective, remarking, “You white people kill everything you see.” Kent makes a point to spend considerable amounts of time with Lieutenant Hawkins, to document the depravity and entitlement of these settlers. These are men at the end of the world, who find themselves coming to the end of themselves. This is a world that these men have shaped in their own image.

However, despite this stark approach to the material, there is a little kernel of hope and compassion nestled deep within The Nightingale. The film initially portrays the relationship between Clare and Billy as a mercenary alliance of convenience; she needs a tracker, and he needs the money. Clare is openly contemptuous of Billy, and distrustful of him. Billy is similarly dismissive of Clare. They are each so wrapped up in their own pain and suffering that they are blind to anything outside themselves.

Shooting for justice.

However, over the course of the film, Billy and Clare come to open up to one another. They discover that their suffering is not unique or different. “You think you’re the only one with problems?” Billy demands at one point, and the film gradually opens Clare’s eyes to the fact that the abuse that she has suffered is just an expression of a far deeper problem, and that it exists as part of a larger system of violence and brutality. For his part, Billy comes to empathise with Clare’s more personal plight, and her desire to exact some form of justice. “If I saw the white ones, the ones that killed my family, I would have done what you did.”

There are some moments in The Nightingale where the movie stumbles, where it is not as graceful in managing the relationship between Clare and Billy as it needs to be. This is particularly apparent at the climax, when Billy’s own arc and motivations are completely subsumed by Clare’s story, with Billy surrendering his own agency to Clare. The film spends a lot of its runtime trying to move the two characters into alignment, into building a mutual respect and compassion between them. However, the film’s ending makes it clear that this was always going to be Clare’s story, and strips out a lot of Billy’s autonomy.

Addressing concerns.

Still, this is a minor complaint in an otherwise stark and striking contemporary western. The Nightingale is hauntingly and nightmarishly beautiful, a story of how the wilderness is never as savage as man’s inhumanity.

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