Revenge films remain popular, in part, because they re-stage a formative aspect of human culture – the bonding of societies around communal acts of violence. As René Girard has written, scapegoating – the designation and punishment of the victim – is one of the foundational cultural moments.
The staging of violence, within the controlled environment of the cinema, fascinates viewers, eliciting a troubling mixture of desire to see punishment enacted upon another body (especially another deserving body) and revulsion at this desire.
Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s recent film, The Nightingale, is, as far as revenge films go, watchable if uninspired. The story follows Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) as she seeks revenge for her rape, and the murder of her husband – and baby – at the hands of a group of soldiers led by the unbelievably repulsive Hawkins (Sam Claflin).
Assisted by guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Indigenous Tasmanian with his own axe to grind against the British colonisers, Clare traverses the Tasmanian wilderness in search of her antagonists, eventually catching up with them in Launceston.
It’s a requirement, for this kind of melodramatic fare to work, that the actions of the antagonists are so reprehensible in the eyes of the viewer – and unforgivable – that the blood-lust of the protagonist can be justifiably acquitted.
Consider Michael Winner’s Death Wish, the prototype of 1970s and 1980s revenge films, and the brutality with which the thugs attack Paul Kersey’s (Charles Bronson’s) family in that film. Or Tarantino’s Kill Bill films – Bill (David Carradine) has to have done some pretty bad stuff to justify his ultimate decapitation by The Bride (Uma Thurman) – and, spoiler alert, he has!
The Nightingale certainly meets this requirement. The baddies are so irredeemably bad, that there is never any doubt about the outcome that awaits them at the end. Indeed, at the screening I attended, members of the audience cried out in triumph when they were killed.
Clare’s life has been so completely destroyed by the actions of Hawkins and his underlings, that her quasi-suicidal desire for vengeance makes perfect emotional sense. After all, how would one survive seeing their infant murdered?
Where the film isn’t as effective, is in the realisation of this vengeance. For this kind of fantastic genre fare, its tone is remarkably dour, and, given the one dimensional characterisations, it lacks the complexity to lend necessary interest to its gravitas.
And this is the problem: the film seems to imagine it is doing or saying something more interesting about the colonial experience than it is.
What it actually suggests – that the Tasmanian genocide was genocidal for Indigenous Tasmanians, and that the colonial life was hard for women (especially for women convicts) – is so painfully obvious, and its treatment so heavy-handed, that the whole thing is rather underwhelming. (For comparison, see the 1970s exploitation film Journey Among Women, which much more effectively visits similar ground.)
Despite being a well-made, and engaging film, The Nightingale is, in short, disappointing. This is more so the case, given Kent’s previous film, The Babadook, is one of the best Australian genre films of the 21st century, a masterclass in psychologically grounded, genuinely terrifying horror cinema.
The performances in The Nightingale are good if unspectacular. Franciosi as Clare tries hard to embody the role, but is overly dependent upon facial expressions. Hers is the kind of facially-driven performance – mouth twitching when angry, eyebrows furrowing in consternation – we often see from early-career cinema actors.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the controversy surrounding its reception in relation to its violence, including a particularly confronting scene of infanticide. Given hundreds, if not thousands of more violent films have emerged from Hollywood and world cinema since the 1960s – many of which are extremely popular – one cannot help but ask if this controversy has anything to do with the gender of Kent.
Perhaps women (or, at least, non-French women) are not supposed to make films that depict brutal rape and murder?
Still, I think the mixed reception of the film has less to do with its violence, and more to do with the tension between its attempts at sombre realism and the fundamental absurdity of its revenge narrative.
Revenge films are essentially idiotic (but pleasing) fantasies, so attempts at gritty realism in the genre will always be in tension with their Manichean, good vs. evil narrative structures. This grates, I suspect, with viewers at an intuitive level.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s nice to see a well-made Australian genre film on the big screen – one just feels that The Nightingale could have been much more interesting than it is.