Dir. Jennifer Kent. Starring Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin
The Nightingale contains the strongest rebuke of the silliness, the callowness, of violence for violence’s sake in the pictures. It is not a war movie, but it has what they say about war movies in mind: that no movie can truly be anti-war, because the movie will inevitably make the war exciting and interesting, will use it to get people’s hearts pounding. Its violence is heart-pounding, undoubtedly, but it is also violence which is not in the least exciting. There is violence which is so over the top that it is meant to be humorous rather than horrifying, done by many directors whose names we will not speak of in this post, although it suffices to say that they know what boys like. And there’s The Nightingale, which is an incredibly violent movie, a harrowing movie, one which does its violence in service of history and still, frankly, must come up short of the truth. Not for lack of trying. This is not a fun movie. It’s not enjoyable at all. It is a strong movie. It’s a movie about justice, and the flawed hands of those who mean to deal it out. Flawed because they cannot predict when their thirst for Hammurabian justice will dry, and flawed because the hands themselves are imperfect. Clare (Franciosi) is raped multiple times onscreen. She watches, in the midst of that crime, as her husband is shot to death and her infant broken just seconds apart from one another. We know that she must live, even though in the long moments after witnessing the murders of her family we could not blame her if she felt otherwise, and so even the blow from the butt of a musket which is meant to crack her own skull is shocking to watch, because we know that it will only knock her out cold rather than kill her for good. Yet as an avatar of justice she is found wanting, and as a person able to find the humanity of others she is found wanting.
About halfway through the movie, Clare finds one of the three men she is searching for. Having been wounded by an Aboriginal spear, Jago (Harry Greenwood) is hobbled, having even tied a tourniquet under the giant hole in his thigh. The other two soldiers and their makeshift servants—convicts who couldn’t say no to the trip to Launceston—have managed to escape the raid, but Jago has been separated from them, left for dead by his superior officer, Hawkins (Claflin). It is Hawkins who first raped Clare, who did it multiple times; it is Hawkins who put the bullet into Aidan’s (Michael Sheasby) back. But it was Jago who, having been ordered to “shut up” the baby, panicked and bashed her against the doorframe. Clare has been tracking the soldiers. She is close, and she knows she’s close. Jago sees her, and seeing merely that she is white, shouts for help, overjoyed to see what he assumes is a friendly face in the thick forest. Clare can run, and Jago cannot, and Clare is armed with a gun, and Jago is not. When she finally manages to back him down, the gun (which it’s possible she’s never fired before) kicks and she gets him in his other leg. What follows is something more than justice, something much holier. Ask one hundred people if they love justice, and one hundred people will give their assent. Ask one hundred people if they love retribution, and I imagine there will be more hems, haws, and lowered eyes than nods. The Nightingale is at its best in this scene, when this violent movie uses its violence much the same way that Clare uses the knife she knocks out of Jago’s hands. She stabs Jago, and then she does it more. The blood wells, which is not often how blood is in the movies. It’ll spurt or gush, but it does not often well; Clare strikes above his heart, and the blood sits under the dirty shirt Jago’s got on underneath his much brighter, but hopelessly filthy, red coat. “Mother,” Jago murmurs. Clare gets the gun, and remembering how she was meant to be disposed of, ensures that Jago may not even bleed to death. Again and again and again she lands blows with the gun, obliterating Jago’s face. The murderer of her baby is dead, and by her doing. That is retribution, which people of a gentler time fear to carry out, may even fear to consider.
Fat and comfortable people do not need retribution, for they are content with some picture of justice. In fact, it is their comfort which makes them uncomfortable with the idea of retribution, since something inside them must understand that their comfort comes at the expense of others and that they’ll be forced to pay for it in more than cash. It is the stricken who need retribution, and it is seldom indeed that the stricken find it; Clare, who has lost almost everything, sacrifices the possibility of everything else in order to get that retribution. Her friends advise her, in more words, to start over with her life, to run from the bad that has happened and try to live again. Clare ignores them, ignores all advice or counsel that would move her further from this goal of retribution. Her own counsel leads her to a corpse that is shapeless from the armpits up, leaving her face and neck splattered with someone else’s hot blood. This is not entertainment, not unless one’s vision of entertainment is something really nasty, but it is immensely satisfying. I have not seen a movie scene satisfying in this way since the last time I watched Hunger, in which an IRA member murders the warden of Maze prison while he’s visiting his mother in a nursing home. Kent understands what Steve McQueen understood. There is something sacred in this exercise of the will, in the uncompromising belief that evil must be punished, and when it goes unpunished by those with the power to punish it, then it is necessary to see that evil remedied permanently. And if Jago’s death is a little messy, why not? Clare is still lactating when she turns Jago’s jawbone to dust. He is the last man she kills. In the intervening days between Jago’s death and the deaths of the two other soldiers, Clare’s nightmares begin to include Jago as well as her husband and child. She sees his disfigured corpse, and it is plain that Clare is too gentle a person to execute that same sentence on the men who raped her, on the man who murdered her husband. She had the energy and will to parcel out an incredibly painful death on one man, but she does not have the brutality to do it twice more. It may speak well of her as someone humane, but as an angel of just reprisal she is at best incomplete. Clare is, at the end of killing Jago, a little horrified by the violence she wreaked.
Within a few minutes of screentime we find out that this victim who has it in her mind to kill the three soldiers who did great evil on her is as racist as they are. Clare was not, by most standards, a “good woman” when the soldiers raped her, and she is not a “good woman” after the fact, either. She and Billy (Ganambarr), her Aboriginal guide she has browbeaten and bribed into taking her into the forest, have a talk one night in which he calls her English and she, as an Irishwoman, takes offense. It’s the seed of the idea that England may be a worse enemy to the two of them, different as they are, than they would be to one another, but it’s also incredible that Clare cannot see her oppression (and that of her fellow convict friends) as having anything in common with the genocide being undertaken against the Aboriginals. To Clare, Billy is “Boy,” or more accurately “boy,” for a long time in this movie, longer even than I expected. And in the end their comradeship is expressed, in greater part, with what he gives up for her rather than what she gives up for him. Ruse (Damon Herriman), whose rape of Clare has left him slavering after whatever woman he can find—Lowanna (Magnolia Maymuru), an Aboriginal woman with a toddler he drags her away from, is his next victim—murders the Aboriginal guide Hawkins has brought on when it becomes clear that the guide has, as revenge for Lowanna’s rape and murder, taken the white men to the middle of nowhere. Billy finds Charlie’s (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown) body, and it radicalizes him. He was brought into the forest on the pretense that Clare was looking for her husband, and assumed up until he found Clare over Jago’s cadaver that he was that husband; he means to abandon her there, knowing that associating with her is likely to get him lynched. Seeing Charlie dead makes him willing to help Clare kill Hawkins and Ruse. Watching a chain gang of Aboriginals murdered in front of his eyes later on makes him willing to die as long as he can take others with him. Thus it is Billy who finds Hawkins whoring and impales him with a well-thrown spear, who takes a bullet in the gut from Ruse’s gun, and who wrestles Ruse to the ground and overpowers him, putting a spear through Ruse’s vulnerable neck. Clare will live, and Billy will die, and when that happens he will be the second man who has put his body between Clare and death. The picture recognizes the unfair weight that the Aboriginal man does for this white woman, who is unable to access most of the privileges that her skin color grants her in Tasmania but still manages, for example, to speak her piece to Hawkins in front of an entire tavern without molestation. It is impossible to imagine Billy getting that opportunity; it is easier to imagine him fulfilling, in the eyes of the people who witness him kill two men, some stereotype of the savage out to murder unsuspecting white innocents for sport.
The movie is patient about letting us find what motivates Hawkins. It’s not merely control that pleasures him, but he likes the feeling of being shown he’s in control. Rape does that for him. Pushing Aidan to his breaking point does that for him. Being told by the only decent white man in the entire movie, Goodwin (Ewen Leslie), that he will not be recommended for a command elsewhere because he has shown absolutely no ability to command the ragtag drunks he’s got, does not do that for him. Thus Hawkins intends to go to Launceston to plead his case with a different officer, one he hopes will be more sympathetic, and en route the convict he treats most favorably is a boy, perhaps middle school aged. Eddie (Charlie Shotwell) is a brown-noser, but he also warms to the attention that this military officer bestows on him. Hawkins shows Eddie how to use a pistol. He praises Eddie and compares him favorably to the soldiers. These are probably the only kindnesses that child convict has ever known, and they are too calculated, too cunning to be kind. Hawkins has bought himself, with little more than some honeyed words and big brother posturing, a sycophant who will not question his superiority. Kent does not think it sufficient merely to show us what evil men can do against women, or what evil the English have done to the people they colonized. Kent wants it made perfectly clear how that system perpetuates itself in a haze of chummy bro socializing, how men who mean to exploit the vulnerabilities of others for their own pleasure will exploit those vulnerabilities whenever they present themselves. If Eddie lived to adulthood, he would no doubt have internalized every little wickedness that Hawkins taught him. He doesn’t, of course. Eddie hesitates to shoot at Billy when they cross paths, and for disobeying Hawkins’ order to gun him down, Eddie is himself gunned down. Mewling and weeping for another chance, Eddie begs the authority figure he has put all this trust in for forgiveness. Hawkins hates the sound of crying—maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I suppose it triggers his conscience—and to shut up Eddie, he unloads his pistol. Eddie’s death, in a perverse way, reminds me of the death of Carson Wells. If the rule Eddie followed brought him to this, of what use was the rule?