Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is a Western revenge yarn of such heightened cruelty and suffering that it basically demands to be read as allegory. Westerns, as a rule, are violent, and that perhaps goes double for the Aussie ones, which tend to be more pitiless than their American cousins, stripping the genre of its romance and derring-do. Even by those standards, The Nightingale is tough to take. Set in the Oz of 1825, it confronts audiences with the full horror of colonialism, including enough scenes of sexual assault to warrant the trigger warning offered up before several screenings of the film over the past year. But while what we see and can never unsee over the course of a grueling two-plus hours is certainly extreme, it’s not gratuitous. That’s partially because Kent, who made the spectacular spookfest The Babadook, isn’t some B-movie shockmeister, rubbing our noses in ugliness for the sake of it. She’s pulled back the veil of awful history to find a cracked reflection of the modern world—and a corresponding, hard-won beauty in solidarity among survivors.
The film takes place in what’s now called Tasmania but was then referred to as Van Diemen’s Land: an island state to the southeast of the Australian mainland, site of some of the worst atrocities in the nation’s history. We experience this unforgiving landscape, seized and occupied by the English, through the eyes of a 21-year-old Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi). She traverses the unchained wilderness in search of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the English officer who’s taken everything from her. The Nightingale commences with her firmly under his boot, serving her sentence as an indentured slave at a military outpost, where she sings for the leering troops and—in the first of the movie’s unspeakable acts—fails to fight off his lecherous advances. This grim opening passage builds to a massacre, a scene of nearly unbearable sadism and loss, as the soldiers descend upon her family home in the dark of night. When Clare awakens, alive but terribly alone, it’s with one goal: vengeance.
Hawkins and his men head north, through the inhospitable bush, raping and pillaging their way to distant civilization. Running solely on rage, sorrow, and bloodlust, Clare pursues, hiring the Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to pick up their trail. Billy, too, nurses a grudge against the English invaders, who have stolen his ancestral land and, as he eventually discovers, all but wiped out his people. A lesser movie might present the relationship that develops between the two as some kind of touching cross-cultural friendship. In Kent’s hands, it’s purer and sadder: a kind of blood pact between lost souls. The Nightingale doesn’t rush their communion, instead letting the animosity and distrust between them melt away very gradually, until they begin to see each other as equals, united by their profound loss and bottomless hatred. The first real sparks of connection ignite around an open flame, as Clare and Billy curse their oppressors in their respective native tongues.
Shooting in a squarish aspect ratio that seems to only enhance the film’s matter-of-fact severity, Kent piles injustice on top of injustice, turning the treacherous woods into a colonial heart of darkness, unyieldingly hostile toward anyone female, nonwhite, and powerless. In a sense, The Nightingale is as much a horror film as The Babadook—and indeed, Kent has built another genre picture around a lead performance of volcanic emotion, communicating the terrible, transformative power of undigested grief. She also stages a few nightmare sequences—visions of the dead visiting Clare in her dreams—that prove that she could have made another primo supernatural chiller, had she not taken this left turn into the tumultuous past. Of course, for all the old-world grunginess of the period setting, the film’s terror is present tense: a deep moral despair, a fear of mankind’s (strong emphasis on the man) capacity for evil, that applies as much to the crimes of the 21st century as those of the 19th.
Kent’s uniformed bad guys, sanctioned to run amok by the empire that sent them, occupy a troubling middle ground: They’re irredeemable monsters but not cartoon villains, symbols of timelessly toxic masculinity but also flesh-and-blood people, all too human in their insecurities and anxieties. It’s unnerving, how much The Nightingale lets us to get to know these war criminals, from the young ensign (Harry Greenwood) stewing with guilt about what he’s done, to the drunken rapist sergeant (Damon Herriman) playing craven second fiddle to his brutal commander. What’s disturbingly timely and relevant about the film is how Kent lays out the shit-trickles hierarchy of patriarchy: how weak men pass their frustrations down, punishing those with less power for the sins of their abusers. Even Hawkins, heartless leader of this platoon of deplorables, is working out his own social disadvantage as a lower-middle-class officer. Claflin, so charismatic in the Hunger Games and elsewhere, provides shades of a soul, shining very faintly beneath his barbarism.
Nonetheless, The Nightingale never stops giving us reasons to despise its antagonists, who see women like Clare only as objects to be used and then discarded, and men like Billy as less than human. One could call this standard rape-revenge-movie strategy—a way to make the audience fiend even harder for the inevitable retribution and comeuppance. But Kent is too intelligent a filmmaker to play so easily to presumed audience desires. She doesn’t revel in murder, no matter how righteous or justified. This is not a “fun” exploitation movie, and its violence is never sensational or cool. The Western has long explored the psychological and spiritual toll of taking lives; it’s the whole thrust of Unforgiven, to name one of the more famous revisionist oaters. But The Nightingale, whose arguably feminist reinvention of the genre culminates with an image lifted straight from The Searchers, is doing something maybe even more philosophically sophisticated: It acknowledges that killing will haunt you, maybe ruin you even, while also wondering aloud if there’s some evil so deep and oppressive and destructive it must be met with violence.
It’s a lot: the screaming violations, the bodies hanging from trees, the depravity of the past Kent grimly links to our present. The Nightingale seems to go on and on, and its excess is the whole point; we’re meant to feel exhausted by the enormity of its action, and the enormousness of its running time. Yet there’s a tragic, moving resonance to the film’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. It’s there in the scenes between Franciosi and first-time actor Ganambarr, forging empathy and a mutual respect in the fire of survival, without a hint of bathetic sentimentality. Their terrific performances keep The Nightingale from ever slipping too far into a vast abyss of hopelessness. Theirs is a nightmare worth enduring.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Sundance Film Festival.