Three out of four starsWhen her first feature — the uber creepy horror flick “The Babadook” — took in $10 million against a $2 million budget, the offers from the big studios to sign writer/director Jennifer Kent came in quick. In the great scheme of things, $10 million at the box office is peanuts — but a 500 percent return on investment is a major big deal.
Rather than settle for quick easy money and the likelihood that Hollywood would have wanted a de facto copy of “The Babadook,” Kent demurred and instead chose to spend the next four years hitting up financiers and working on “The Nightingale.”
Although the price hasn’t been made public as of yet, the budget for “The Nightingale” is likely larger than “The Babadook” but not by much. A period piece taking place in 1825 and again set in Kent’s native Australia, “The Nightingale” is equally as throttling as “The Babadook” and is 10 times as unsettling and violent. With some slight modifications, higher-end cinematography, hip gallows humor and maybe a livelier soundtrack, this could have easily been a Quentin Tarantino revenge movie.
Recalling “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid,” “Cold Mountain” and “The Proposition” (another blood-soaked and merciless Australian period thriller), Kent’s sophomore feature is going to make the major studios want her next project even more. And unless something bizarre from out of left field occurs, she’ll be able to write her own future ticket in short order.
Opening with a scene similar to the one that closed Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” the Irish transplant Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is ordered by British officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin) to serenade his drunken soldiers with song which she does amidst a flurry of wolf whistles and cat calls.
Clare is at the end of serving a sentence for a crime she committed seven years earlier which is never mentioned (and actually its better left unexplained).
What becomes shockingly clear in short order is that Hawkins has been raping Clare regularly and intends on doing so for as long as he wants. Being a British officer and colonist with a beyond vicious mean streak, Hawkins has military entitlements up the wazoo and has no intention of ever relinquishing his evil, abhorrent, king-given rights.
Not surprisingly, this arrangement doesn’t sit well with Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) – also the father of their infant daughter. Promising to play it cool but changing his mind after downing too much liquid courage, Aidan provokes Hawkins and what follows will test even the most tolerant of jaded, battle-tested audiences.
If you can make it through this stretch without throwing in the towel or tossing your cookies, the rest of the movie will be as relatively easy to navigate as an early autumn stroll in Piedmont Park. Please be sure to underscore “relatively” here.
From this point forward, plot details will have to remain vague but it isn’t giving too much away to say that Clare intends on finding Hawkins, his sniveling and cowardly weasel underling Ruse (Damon Herriman — who also plays Charles Manson in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), another killer soldier and their ragtag posse halfway across the continent and giving them what-fer.
With next to no budget, Aidan’s horse, a rifle and some low-end jewelry to trade, Clare — with lots of guilt shaming and pleading — drafts Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal familiar with the lay of the land. Not beyond leaving Clare in the lurch at the worst possible times, Billy exhibits multiple versions of tough love in order to help her, which she mostly misinterprets.
In theory, Billy would be Clare’s ace in the hole. But Hawkins has his own older native guide with an even better knowledge which allows Hawkins to always stay a day ahead.
At 136 minutes, Kent’s narrative takes far more time than it should to reach its conclusion — which is not helped by two semi-false endings. In retrospect these diversions also provide the time to toss in twists most would have not anticipated and they work surprisingly well.
With two very impressive features to her credit, Kent has now firmly established herself as a daring and unflinching filmmaker refusing to sacrifice her creative vision for the sake of audience comfort. In order to make it through her movies, the viewer must become an unwitting accomplice – a witness to skin crawling events which challenge their own morality, values and ideas of cinematic limits.
If Kent indeed gets signed by a major studio and they give her free reign regarding content, budget and final cut, her third film (and make no mistake, there will be at least a third film) will instantly catapult her to the industry’s highest echelon.
Presented in English with frequent subtitled Scottish Gaelic and Aboriginal.