Revenge films often have the same emotional arc. After the hero is wronged – their loved ones killed, their fortune stolen – the film then justifies their thirst for vengeance, and so there is satisfaction when they vanquish their enemies. The Nightingale, the new revenge thriller from Jennifer Kent, eschews that kind of easy catharsis. Nothing about Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is easy: it depicts rape, violence, racism, and misogyny. Still, the film’s disturbing content is never excessive, or gruesome for its own sake. Kent may set her film in the early 1800s, but it oozes with modern resonance since civil rights and civilization have done little to curb human nature.
In a fearless performance, Aisling Franciosi plays Clare, an Irish convict who lives in Tasmania with her husband and infant child. She is the plaything of Hawkins (Sam Claflin), an officer in the British army, and when we first meet her, she sings a song for a group of soldiers. Kent cuts to their faces, and we see either boredom or lust. She has a beautiful singing voice, but her eyes suggest she feels no emotional connection to the song. These men terrify her.
There is no point in sugarcoating what happens next: after losing a promotion, Hawkins rapes Clare more than once. His lackeys murder her family, including the infant. All this happens in the first half hour, and it is likely The Nightingale will inspire walk-outs. Unlike other recent depictions of sexual assault (Game of Thrones comes immediately to mind), Kent never shoots from the perpetrators’ point of view. We see the humanity in Clare and her family that her assailants cannot, and there is nothing lurid in how Kent films this violence. Other men are in the room with her, and their barely-concealed disgust – coupled with Hawkins’ base desire to reclaim power – is way more powerful than rapid editing or a cloying music cue.
When Clare awakens the following morning, she is in a rage. She wants to kill Hawkins and the others, only to discover they have left for a difficult journey through the Tasmanian forest. All the white people in the settlement recognize they will perish alone in the wilderness, so she recruits an aboriginal named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to track Hawkins and his men (she lies to him about her journey’s true purpose). From there, The Nightingale follows a more conventional structure, with Clare and Billy on the pursuit. There are flashes of violence, but mostly we learn more about Billy, Clare, and how they feel about being prisoners in an occupied country.
Unlike The Revenant, another historical revenge film, Kent does not film nature with a sense of austere beauty. There is a hopeless quality to the greens and greys of the forest, and like Clare, the audience relies on the aboriginal characters for crucial context. A more typical film would develop friendship between Clare and Billy, and while they develop something approaching mutual respect, both characters carry too much baggage to ever let their guard down. Kent does not shy away from Clare’s racism toward Billy, so it’s almost funny when – much to each other’s surprise – they find some common ground.
The scenes with Hawkins and his men are much more terrifying. Damon Herriman – who briefly appeared in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as Charles Manson – plays Ruse, a soldier who lacks Hawkins’ worst qualities, and still enjoys his scraps. Hawkins takes a boy named Eddie (Charlie Shotwell) under his wing, and together these characters reveal the worst kind of toxic masculinity. Hawkins needs power and slaves because that’s the only way he derives any self-worth. There is a crucial moment when, facing certain death, Hawkins does something that says a lot about why white men need white supremacy. Absent any decency or imagination, that’s the only way they can find self-worth.
It goes without saying that Clare exacts some revenge on her journey. Many films try and be about the futility of revenge, but The Nightingale illustrates it through simple, unblinking clarity. She eventually kills one of her attackers, but she’s shocked by her own brutality. This leads to several intense nightmare sequences: Kent creates an intriguing balance between reality and hallucination, with figures serving as avatars for Clare’s guilt and loss. By the time she faces Hawkins, disgust governs her more than outrage. This gives a strain of accuracy to the film: people who desire vengeance do not magically become superhuman tools of justice.
The Nightingale has few characters and runs well over two hours, and that length gives Kent time to change the focus of her film. Clare has most of our sympathy when the film begins, but that gradually tilts toward Billy and the other aboriginals. It is a storytelling masterstroke: Clare shifts from a point of view character into an observer, and finally a participant. This is where Kent offers a glimmer of hope. If Clare can find room in her heart to see the atrocities that others must deal face, then perhaps so can we. Still, Kent includes a scene where Clare – left with no prospects or future – shows Hawkins and the other soldiers who she really is. They are not sure what to make of her, except they cannot deny the humanity in a woman they once perceived as a plaything.