It’s been 5 years since Jennifer Kent unleashed her widely loved and acclaimed horror film, The Babadook and now she returns with the angry and unbelievably violent Western, The Nightingale. This is hands down the most uncompromising Western since John Hillcoat’s underrated The Proposition. Another film that pulls zero punches when it comes to the unflinching depiction of life before civility was a constant.
Aisling Franciosi plays Clare, an Irish woman who lives in the forests of Tasmania with her husband and baby. They are convicts living a hard life under British rule. She works as a servant in a colony. By night, she serves British officers in a pub. Life isn’t great. She is constantly harassed and in one early scene, she is raped. Kent wastes no time submerging the audience into the rough and lawless world of 1820’s Tasmania.
“I don’t want no trouble.”
Clare’s husband finds out about her rape and confronts the officers who perpetrated the crime. He is beaten up and the family is left in shame. The transgressions, however, do not stop there. The next day the British officers show up at their cabin. Clare is not only raped twice more, but they kill her husband and baby. The violence in this scene is immediate and hard to watch. I actually had to stop the movie for a few minutes to catch my breath.
When she wakes up, Clare decides to take vengeance. The British officers are ordered to ride out to another fort to await new orders and Clare decides to pursue with fire and fury. Although, she does not go alone. She hires an Aborigine man, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to guide her. Their relationship is testy at first, but soon they find solace in one another as they discover the hardships they share.
From here on out, The Nightingale becomes a pursuit picture. Kent’s film cuts back and forth between the misanthropic British soldiers and all the atrocities they commit and Clare and Billy’s pursuit of them. A special mention must be given to Sam Claflin, who plays the main antagonist Hawkins here. Hawkins is a special kind of evil. He has contempt for every other single person around him. He lives to torture, hurt, maim or kill anyone who refuses to serve or help him. It’s one of the vilest screen performances of the decade.
” That’s just the way isn’t it? You don’t want trouble but sometimes trouble wants you.”
The meaning of Kent’s film becomes apparent soon. Men in power, specifically white men, have, for years, used their power to ruin and degrade everything around them. Although her film stops short of being a call to rise up and fight back, The Nightingale lives in the focused and angry mindset of her heroine.
It’s possible that these themes are maybe a little too heavy-handed. There are many scenes where Billy or Clare talk about white men or boys scorching the earth for everyone else. Coupling that with just how truly vile and disgusting the Claflin character is, the picture seems too strong here. But in the end, it didn’t ruin the experience for me. Kent’s film is a scorching, bloody, ultra-violent film.
Did I enjoy the experience of The Nightingale? Not particularly. Do I admire Kent and her uncompromising vision? A resounding yes.
Overall Score 3.5/5