Following her extraordinary 2014 horror movie “The Babadook,” Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent takes a non-horror route in her sophomore film “The Nightingale,” but like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” it taps into a dark, vicious mood of the moment.
Opening Friday at the Embarcadero, “The Nightingale,” set nearly 200 years ago in Australia, feels stingingly current. It’s a grueling sit, and might not warrant a second viewing, but one time through is a must.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a convict who finished serving her time, is married to a kind man, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and has an infant child.
The movie’s title refers to Clare’s beautiful voice, and how she’s called upon to sing for rowdy, drunken, groping British soldiers.
Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who hates his low-level posting in Van Diemen’s Land, refuses to sign her release papers. He takes out his frustrations by repeatedly raping her.
Aidan notices a bruise on her neck and demands justice, which causes her world to crumble.
She takes her husband’s horse, hires an Aboriginal guide, Billy (dancer Baykali Ganambarr, making his agile acting debut) and goes through the woods to find and kill her tormenter.
With a two-hour, 16-minute running time, “The Nightingale” is not swift like Coralie Fargeat’s tense, cat-and-mouse 2017 “Revenge.” “The Nightingale” is more like an odyssey into the soul.
After the initial brutal set up, Kent tracks the journey through the wilderness, cutting between the two parties. Hawkins travels with underlings Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood), as well as three prisoners, treated as slaves.
The youngest, a proud boy named Eddie (Charlie Shotwell), boasts about how much he can carry, how hard he can work, and Hawkins takes a liking to him, teaching him how to shoot, etc.
But Hawkins, a climber concerned only with his own advancement, is inept, blaming his inadequacies on others. Leaving in his trail a wake of raped women and dead boys, his response is, “Who are you going to believe: me, a white officer, or a lowly prisoner?”
Yet Kent paints him as human. He’s evil, but his motivations are recognizably (perhaps too recognizably) human. His portion of the story resonates as much as the “good” half.
On her side, Clare, initially repelled by her black-skinned guide, comes to respect him and learn from him. (For example, he provides a natural salve to stop her painful production of unused breast milk.)
The movie’s “black savior” motif, in which his pure, spiritual ways are seen as superior to her crude, white ways, works in this case, given the character extremes.
“The Nightingale” also demonstrates a villainous racism; in addition to Billy, two other major black characters meet a separate fate, which feels ripped from today’s headlines.
Though technically not a horror movie, “The Nightingale” is akin to classic 1970s grindhouse movies now considered horror: Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” and Meir Zarchi’s “I Spit on Your Grave,” which also tapped into their era’s zeitgeist.
Here, Kent is complex in addressing the frustrations women felt in a world of men. In “The Nightingale,” as in these previously mentioned movies, revenge is initially the goal, but the themes go way beyond that simple concept. Clare learns that it’s one thing to snuff out evil, but it’s another to try to be good in places where evil dominates, and to persevere with an unwavering heart.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman
Written and directed by: Jennifer Kent
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes