“The Nightingale,” the latest film from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent — who delighted and horrified audiences with “The Babadook” back in 2014 — finds her orchestrating new horrors by rendering the Old West sensibilities of “True Grit” into the carnage of “I Spit on Your Grave,” both revenge films led by young women seeking bloodthirsty retribution.
The film is a meteoric tempest of unabridged colonial violence relegated to occupied Tasmania in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Unquestionably, is the setting Kent chose to implant her take on revenge a harsh one. England's occupation of Oceania — the geographic region that includes Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia — saw immense genocide of the indigenous people, one of which is Billy, the Aboriginal guide to the vengeful Clare, an Irish convict who, in the opening segments, witnesses the murder of her infant child and husband while being raped by the British Lieutenant who presides over her.
The film is a volcanic boiling of every fiber of humanity at its most wicked, situated in one of the darker periods of British colonialism, a period of violence dubbed the Black War where British colonists and Aboriginal Australians met each other in blood. It is also a dual exploration of revenge in microcosm and macrocosm — Clare seeks revenge for her slaughtered family, while Billy, only realizing later, seeks revenge for his slaughtered people.
Clare’s weaponry, aside from burning, womanly vengeance, knives and flintlock rifles, is her voice. Dubbed “the nightingale” in her small village, she coercively sings soft melodies at the local tavern populated by British soldiers. Like the voices of women crying out in this new age of justice, Clare uses her own to vanquish her tormentors.
With the current resurgence in rape-revenge films, no doubt incensed by #MeToo, it would seem modern cinemas are once again a repository for sexual violence, challenging men and women alike to be confronted with the harshest of realities.
Yet, in opposition to the violent outings of yesteryear — the very graphic “I Spit on Your Grave” included, among the like of Wes Craven's “The Last House on the Left” and grindhouse sexploitation — Kent, penning her own script, takes the rape-revenge genre and instills within it a veritable sensibility. Unlike the boisterously-crafted genre film of the same type in 2017's “Revenge,” Kent orchestrates the violence and abhorrent cruelty with subdued realism. No fountains of blood, no exposed genitalia, and no grisly accentuated gore.
Blood certainly flows, but the violence is denounced and condemned, only conducted in a way apropos to realism.
Even so, the film's incessant proclivity for showcases in inhumanity gets tiring rather quickly. The first-act sexual assault and murder is cataclysmic, sending the heart into a rapid and disturbed ticking, and signals the serving of a cold dish of revenge that follows.
But scene after scene thereafter, the film habitually lays on cruelty after cruelty, where every breathing man wandering the oceanic island of Tasmania is cheerfully equipped to manufacture severe speech and the readying of a flintlock rifle when their paths are crossed by Clare and Billy.
I cannot continue without mentioning the best element of the film — the eruptive performances by Aisling Franciosi as Clare, and Baykali Ganambarr as Billy. Their reciprocated need for revenge, where their faces and voices become that of beasts, is equally counterbalanced by the measured tenderness they are allowed to display in the film's quieter moments.
Colonial racism is entrenched in every corner of this film's historical world, but the shedding of this between Clare and Billy as the film goes on is touching, if a little overly maudlin in certain final-act interludes.
Still, with the film's 136-minute runtime, one begins to feel weary at a certain point in the latter half, and it is of no fault to the constant miserablism at work here, as one would think. No, there is a peculiar awareness to some stop-and-go plotting in the final act.
Certain scenes and sequences almost beg to be cut from the final product here. Those blameworthy of this are nightmare sequences that evoke those from “The Babadook.” While they may emphasize themes, these particular themes have already been deployed sufficiently enough previously.
There is a singular moment in the film — a slow pan of the camera upward where a massive tree is seen, seemingly infected. Bleached white from its peak, the color crawls down the trunk where it meets the unaffected ebony bark of its base. A creeping white invasion and its black resistance. This moment encapsulates Kent's picture. Power-seeking invaders will score the land in terrible scars, and those victims of the holocaust are likely to give a vicious retort.
If not extended, “The Nightingale” ends its run at the Moxie on Thursday, Sep. 19.