One thing I’ve learned in my years covering Sundance is that when a programmer gets up on stage and tells an audience that the movie they’re about to watch is “tough” or “not for the faint of heart,” you take them dead seriously. A few years ago, someone prefaced a screening of The Eyes Of My Mother, a spirited attempt to do a backwoods serial-killer yarn in the style of an Ingmar Bergman art movie, with one such disclaimer—and the steady exodus of disturbed moviegoers that followed confirmed that he wasn’t exaggerating. Likewise the introduction to Ari Aster’s blood-curdling Hereditary, which I caught at its second screening here in Park City last January, and which fully lived up to the words of caution offered at its onset. You can’t be too careful at a film festival—sage advice for attendees, taking chances on new movies that could fuck them up real good, but also for the organizers, who are smart to assume that the average festivalgoer has no idea what they’re getting themselves into.
I definitely got the impression that last night’s audience at The Marc, the same theater that played host to my Hereditary-induced anxiety attack, was not prepared for the extremity of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s new thriller. “This is not an easy sit,” we were told, the programmer promising a movie as savagely unsparing as its setting, the outlaw outback of the early 19th century. But even this warning didn’t seem to properly brace the crowd for The Nightingale (Grade: B+), whose nearly two-and-a-half hours of relentless, unspeakable violence provoked its share of distressed walkouts. Judging from some overheard post-screening grumbles (“I thought it was going to be scary, but then it wasn’t”), plenty of those who stayed for the whole thing were expecting something closer in spirit to Kent’s last movie, the primo trauma-monster creepout The Babadook, which premiered at Sundance five years ago. What they got instead was ceaseless, numbing brutality—a Western revenge yarn of such heightened cruelty and suffering that it basically demands to be read as allegory.
Two strangers, united by profound loss and a bottomless hatred, traverse the Tasmanian wilderness of 1825. She is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, running solely on rage, sorrow, and bloodlust, hunting the British soldiers who gang-raped her, then killed her husband and infant child. He is Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), the Aboriginal tracker she’s hired to pick up the men’s trail; Billy, too, grapples with a consuming trauma: the theft of his land and the systematic extermination of his tribe. A more conventional and sentimental movie might treat the bond that slowly develops between the two—the way their mutual distrust for each other falls away—as a beautiful culture-crossing friendship. In Kent’s hands, it’s purer and sadder: a kind of blood pact between lost souls, empathy forged in the fire of survival. It’s almost literally them versus the world, which the director depicts as a colonial heart-of-darkness, unyieldingly hostile towards anyone female, nonwhite, and powerless.
As a rule, Aussie Westerns tend to be more pitiless than their American cousins, stripping the genre of its romance and derring-do. Even by that standard, The Nightingale, which premiered at Venice last year and is playing Sundance as part of the fest’s “Spotlight” program, is a lot to take. It’s often as much a horror movie as The Babadook, with the lingering phantom of undigested grief and resentment replaced by a deep moral despair, a fear of mankind’s (strong emphasis on the man) capacity for evil. Shooting in a squarish aspect ratio that seems to only enhance the film’s matter-of-fact severity, Kent piles one atrocity onto the next, while draining the violence—even the “righteous” kind, the kind not visited upon innocents—of any excitement. The villains, a platoon of raping-and-pillaging British soldiers (led by a Sam Claflin, of the Hunger Games movies, going fearlessly despicable as the commanding officer), are irredeemable monsters, human only in their pitiful weaknesses of character. This is standard rape-revenge-movie strategy—the more we despise the bad guys, the more satisfying it will be to see them get their inevitable comeuppance. But Kent is too intelligent a filmmaker to play so easily to presumed audience desires. There’s a more complicated conversation in the way she subverts the expected trajectory of this kind of film.
When systems of justice fail, is violence the only proper response to violence? Is it the only language abusers and oppressors can understand? Troubling, timely questions hover like buzzards over The Nightingale. Kent acknowledged a certain urgent relevance before the film began, insisting that she sees it very much as a movie about the modern world. That’s a case, of course, that one can usually make for the Western, a genre that’s historically operated as a prism through which filmmakers could explore national identity (American, Australian, or otherwise). But there’s something tragically resonant and singular in Kent’s vision of two marginalized characters—one black, the other a woman, both stripped of everything—finding common ground in their parallel trauma and resistance. The Nightingale, heavy and heartbreaking as the nightly news, is not a fun exploitation movie; even those not beholden to Babadook 2 expectations may find it too much to bear: the screaming violations, the bodies hanging from trees, the depravity of the past Kent grimly links to our present. It is, however, the kind of major work whose supposed drawbacks, like its nonstop barbarity and exhaustingly extended running time, feed right into its uncompromising vision. We were all warned about the film’s violence. There was no preparing for its awful power.