Tag Archives: B+

THE NIGHTINGALE

Producer: Kristina Ceyton, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky and Jennifer Kent
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby, Charlie Jampijinpa Brown, Magnolia Maymuru, Ewen Leslie, Luke Carroll and Nathaniel Dean
Studio: IFC Films

B+

Jennifer Kent’s debut feature “The Babadook” was one of the most imaginative and chilling horror films of recent years, featuring an exceptionally unusual boogeyman, and her second is no less unsettling, but in quite a different way. There are monsters in “The Nightingale,” but they’re all of the human variety, and perhaps more frightening for that very reason.

Though the film runs for over two hours, the scenario is rather a simple one, involving a difficult journey motivated by a desire for revenge. In early nineteenth century Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then known, two Irish exiles, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Aidan (Michael Sheasby) have married and had a child, but while he has completed his term as a convict and received official confirmation of his freedom, she remains in thrall to British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), despite having completed her seven-year sentence, since he refuses to provide documentation proving her release.

Hawkins is infatuated with Clare, compelling her to sing for his band of ruffian soldiers, including Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman) and callow Ensign Jago (Harry Greenwood), and forcing her, unbeknownst to Aidan, to have sex with him. In a confrontation that becomes heated, Aidan demands that the officer certify his wife’s release papers, and when Hawkins decides to leave for the northern town of Launceston to seek promotion to a captaincy for which his on-site superior declines to recommend him, he—along with Ruse and Jago—stop at the couple’s cabin to exact retribution for the insult. The sequence is but the first of several that will convince some viewers to divert their eyes from the screen.

Clare determines to pursue the three men as they traipse through the wilderness, and manages to hire an aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to lead her. She and Billy are initially hostile to each other—she sees him as dangerous (the action is set in the midst of the so-called “Black War” of the late 1820s and early 1830s, and there are sporadic glimpses of the violence brought on by the ethnic strife—farms set ablaze, corpses hanging on trees), while he initially identifies her with the Brits who have slaughtered his family and stolen the land. Eventually, however, as they tell one another of their lives, they see each other as having a common enemy in the English, who after all were seen as oppressors by the Irish too, and they grow more understanding—and more protective—of one another.

The narrative juxtaposes their journey with that of Hawkins, his men, and the minions they have brought along, including a boy named Eddie (Charlie Shotwell); they too have an aboriginal guide, an old man named Charlie (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown), who ultimately reveals his own agenda. The soldiers’ lust and casual cruelty explode sporadically as they go, particularly after Ruse encounters a native woman (Magnolia Maymuru) and her child in the forest. But Hawkins mistreats his own men as well as the aboriginals; handsome but hot-tempered, he’s quick to take up his pistol at the slightest provocation, even against Eddie, whom he tries to train as a personal acolyte.

Clare’s desire for revenge, and Billy’s equally great sense of the injustice he and his people have suffered, do ultimately find release, though in unexpected ways. The film seems poised to end before the two-hour mark, but an abrupt change in one character leads to a final act at Launceton that brings not one scene of retribution but two very different ones. It’s here, especially, that “The Nightingale” moves beyond being a grisly tale of personal revenge to emerge as a wrenching microcosm of the results of cultural imperialism.

The power of the film is attributable first and foremost to Kent’s script and hyper-realistic direction (accentuated by Radek Ladczuk’s grim, gritty visuals, shot in forbidding locales, as well as in hand-held style and the constricting academy-box format, and by Alex Holmes’ grimy production design and Margot Wilson’s costumes, among which only Hawkins’ uniforms—and those of the other soldiers in Launceston—sport bright colors).

But its impact is equally dependent on the performances, especially Franciosi’s ferocious turn, which captures both Clare’s tremulous vulnerability and her apparently adamantine resolve—as well as her undying sense of nationality. Ganambarr, though not so overtly intense, is equally effective, embodying more resignedly the intense pain of a whole people being oppressed and nearly exterminated. Claflin, meanwhile, conveys perfectly how utter malevolence can exist under a handsome surface and a veneer of cultivation, while Herriman shows the stupid brutishness of one of his underlings and Greenwood the cowardly acquiescence of the other. There is outstanding support, from Sheasby, Brown, Shotwell and Maymuru in particular.

“The Nightingale” might be compared to “Midsommar,” the recent sophomore effort by Ari Aster, whose “Hereditary” was also an auspicious genre debut. Visually the two films couldn’t be more different, Aster presenting his horrors in luminously bright images while Kent’s film is relentlessly dark and gloomy.

But both films are notable for extremely high levels of violence and sexuality, which will prove highly disturbing to many viewers—Kent’s perhaps more so, since it is presented in a less stylized, artsy form. Both films can also be criticized for their epic length; Aster’s is languid throughout, and Kent’s tends, in the final stretch, to meander and lose clarity (the editing is by Simon Njoo).

From the opposite point in the spectrum, one might also question the note of hopefulness that Kent brings to her film at the close, not only in terms of an episode in which an elderly English settler shows kindness to Clare (and especially Billy) even as others are engaged in what can only be seen as mass executions of indigenous prisoners, and in the final sequence on a sun-drenched beach, which takes advantage of Ganambarr’s dancing skills but adds a poetic touch that comes across as being rather at odds with the grim realism that’s prevailed to that point, although some viewers may appreciate the hint of possible light in the darkness.

Still, Kent’s work is the superior film of the two, because it is not merely about the deployment of horror tropes in service of a weak storyline. “The Nightingale” is horrifying because it so powerfully portrays the deepest recesses of inhumanity, in terms of both men’s treatment of women and the brutality of a conquering race against peoples they dismiss as inferior.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Producer: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros, Lije Sarki and David Thies
Director: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Writer: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal, Wayne DeHart, Jake "Thr Snake" Roberts, Mick Foley and Yelawolf
Studio: Roadside Attractions

B+

A picaresque journey from Virginia to Florida with some unlikely traveling companions, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a small film with a big heart. It is also notable for a casting choice that gives it special distinction, though one hopes that it’s one that will become less extraordinary in the future.

It involves Zack Gottsagen, who plays Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome who has been placed in a nursing home in Richmond because the state has no other facility in which he can be housed. Gottsagen actually has the condition.

Frustrated after spending years in the home in spite of the kindness shown him by sympathetic nurse Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak engineers his escape with the help of his cantankerous roommate Carl (Bruce Dern, as usual delightfully crabby), though it leaves him clothed only in his underwear. His aim is not merely freedom, but the fulfillment of a dream to study pro wrestling at a Georgia school run by his idol Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a grappler whom he’s watched obsessively on old video tapes.

Meanwhile Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman struggling to make ends meet since the death of his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, seen only in flashback), falls afoul of his nasty rival Duncan (John Hawkes), and retaliates by releasing the guy’s catch of crabs. He then flees in his rusty old boat, with Duncan and his minion Ratboy (Yelawolf) in pursuit.

What Tyler doesn’t know is that Zak has hidden himself under a tarp on the boat. And when he does discover the young man, he’s not at all pleased. But he reluctantly takes the young man under his wing, teaching him to swim and shoot a gun along the way, and they develop a fraternal bond.. Traveling by boat, raft, and on foot, they proceed down the Virginia and Carolina coasts, but not entirely alone: Eleanor catches up with them and creates a threesome. But of course there’s always the danger that Duncan and Ratboy will show up as well.

In his chance meeting with Eleanor at a general store, Tyler mentions that the young man she’s seeking might be living his own version of a Mark Twain story like Huckleberry Finn, and that’s precisely what “Falcon” is; and while it might not match its model (what movie could?), it’s a genial modern variant. It too is episodic, making room for vignettes along the way, the best probably being an encounter with a pistol-packing blind man (Wayne DeHart), who insists on baptizing them before giving them provisions to continue their odyssey.

The essence of the tale, however, is the relationship that develops between Zak and Tyler, and as played by the open-faced, enthusiastic, utterly committed Gottsagen and LaBeouf, who morphs with considerable nuance from the surly young man of his first scenes to the caring fellow of the final act, it’s a touching one. This is the story of Tyler’s redemption as well as Zak’s engagement with the world, and LaBeouf makes it credible. Johnson’s Eleanor has less shading than her eventual companions, but the actress endows her with the necessary sweetness.

The movie culminates, of course, with the trio’s arrival at the wrestling school, which is hardly the thriving enterprise that Zak expects. But Salt Water (an engagingly crusty cameo by Church) proves as open to his would-be student’s charms as Eleanor and Tyler, and enlists others—played by Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley, elder statesmen in the pro wrestling world—to help Zak realize his dream, though the outcome avoids the note of easy triumph one might anticipate.

Directed in a gentle, unfussy manner by first-timers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who wrote the script with Gottsagen in mind, “Falcon” boasts a production design (by Gabrael Wilson) that captures the seediness of the surroundings without overemphasizing it, and naturalistic cinematography by Nigel Bluck, and moves at unforced but not languid pace thanks to the editing by Kevin Tent and Nathaniel Fuller. The music by Jonathan Sadoff, Zachary Dawes, Noam Pilekny and Gabe Witcher is supportive, not intrusive.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon”—the title comes from the name Zak chooses for his wrestling persona—is a lovely tale of an unusual friendship, one that earns your affection rather than demanding it.