‘Do you have bad men like that?’, inquires Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict, to aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who she’s enlisted to help find the men who raped her and murdered her family. Billy confirms that they do sometimes; that they turn to the spirits for help; and then if that ceremony doesn’t work, they kill them. But The Nightingale (2018) — Jennifer Kent’s excruciating depiction of gendered and racial violence, which reworks the classic revenge tale into a mythical paen to solidarity — is not really concerned with ‘bad men’, but rather the whole system that produces them.
Kent’s narrative innovation is the aforementioned transposition of the revenge tale onto an unsuspecting context (British colonial Tasmania) and centring a metonymic act of violence (the initial rape and murder, rendered horrifically but without being exploitative), both of which immediately mark the films universal political dimensions. The magnitude of the act institutes a core propulsiveness, along which we’re pulled with an impassioned sense of subjectivity; an allegiance to Clare’s plight under British rule, and the mission which arises from that. Precisely the metonymic status of the violence — but one of the many recurrent indignities and brutalities reproduced by a larger system of oppression — in turn de-individualises the motive of revenge: despite Clare herself being animated by a slaughterous personal vengeance, the retribution carries an intense and universal righteousness. This de-individualisation, of course, is instituted in large part through the parallel struggle of Billy and the indigenous Tasmanians. Both characters’ arcs intertwine as they shift through different affective relations — from mutual suspicion, begrudging respect, and tentative care, to, finally, rich solidarity — and Kent’s screenplay handles this deftly. She avoids contrivance while enabling profoundly direct moments of consciousness-raising: Clare’s dismissive ‘poor you’ when Billy relays his domination in detail is rebutted with ‘Not poor me; fuck the English!’. Has there ever been a more pithy refusal of the charge of victimhood?
As for Sam Clafflin’s brutal villain, Lieutenant Hawkins, Kent avoids simple Manichaeism. Don’t get me wrong, Hawkins is a heartless bastard, one of the most incessantly cruel screen characters I’ve had the displeasure of witnessing. But Kent decentres this cruelty, positioning it within the complex of imperatives and expectations required by imperial administration. There is no interest here in making excuses, but rather an attempt to refuse the abstraction and moralisation of Hawkins actions as an unintelligible individual evil in favour of reading it as an extension of the social system that, in some essential way, generated him. Hawkins is animated largely by the risk of losing his promised promotion, which sets him and his band on track to the nearest outpost to protest it in person. The presence of a convict child, whom they drag along to carry their equipment, and the way he is groomed by Hawkins into the model of masculinist exploitation they epitomise, should be seen as a symbolic backstory for Hawkins himself. Social respect, the imperative to conform to the norms and pressures of one’s social context, is here dependent upon reproducing those systemic acts of violence Clare and Billy seek to avenge: when the boy can’t bring himself to accept the Lieutenants command to execute their own indigenous tracker, Hawkins responds with belittling fury, seeming closing off the boys passage into manhood. His begging that ‘he’ll shoot the next one’ there demonstrates how monsters are created: one learns, from a very young age, that to be accepted is to conform to the social demands placed on you — which, in this case, means executing disobedient indigenous peoples. Even the villains, then, are trapped.
Despite the film sagging slightly in the third act, the final scene is masterful. Billy sits on the beach, on the coast which served as his tribe’s homeland before they were exterminated, spear in hand and warpaint coagulating with the blood from his wounds. Clare stands off to the right of frame, both positioned equidistant from each other, with the sea’s horizon, and the dwindling sunlight, linking them. Billy murmurs his people’s chant; Clare cries softly with hand on horse. There is beauty, and grace, in The Nightingale’s ultraviolence. And its myth, ultimately, leaves us with two thoughts: to hold one another, to find strength in another’s suffering; and to explore what it might mean to kill the ‘bad men’ like Billy’s tribe did, to consider how we, together, might dispatch the system that reproduces them.