Nightingale (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Nightingale (2015)

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Peter Snowden is excited.  He speaks to an audience on the internet every day, and looks forward to being reunited with a fellow soldier from his Army days.  But as the days stretch on it seems Peter is not well, and what appears to be a harmless performance for an unseen audience may be more imaginary, and far more dangerous, than it first seems.  Elliott Lester directs Nightingale from a screenplay by Frederick Mensch and stars David Oyelowo.

Burn it awayDavid Oyelowo, after proving himself capable of portraying one of the most iconic historical figures in American history and substituting complicated reality where the myth would suit many just fine, has become one of the performers whose work I must pursue in any film he appears in.  That said, Nightingale, with its 2014 screener date and eventual release 2015 by HBO, seems less an artistic endeavor on behalf of HBO than an opportunity to capitalize on Oyelowo's burst into the public limelight.  As established, I'm guilty of this as well, but missed out on watching Nightingale from its premier last week and was only able to watch it this week.

Nightingale proves, if there was any doubt, Oyelowo is one of the major talents to embrace coming into the new millennium.  He was fantastic in Selma, The Butler, Lincoln, and A Most Violent Year - but those films, even when I wasn't a huge fan, were also carried by superb direction and a cadre of similarly good supporting performances.  Oyelowo is primarily responsibly for what quality Nightingale is able to bring to the table, so to speak.  So I now have faith that Oyelowo, even if the film is lackluster, will be worth watching.

Oyelowo conveys so much in this manic look while he attempts to get his tie just right.

Oyelowo conveys so much in this manic look while he attempts to get his tie just right.

The disorienting feel of Nightingale is established right off with one of the only great shots of the film and a chilling argument we hear over the soundtrack.  Director Elliott Lester creates what, at first, feels like an impossible 360 shot.  Even though we hear Peter (Oyelowo) arguing loudly with someone, we think his mother, we can the surroundings of the humble home as the camera twirls slowly.  After what feels like an eternity, the view finally settles on the back of the frustrated Peter, an appropriately mysterious shot as we'll spend the next hour or so figuring out just what his problem is.

Really, even though I don't like it, the worst thing I can say about Lester's direction is that it's serviceable.  I was never confused in terms of conveying the basic visual information needed about Peter's habitat and suggesting problems with his mental state.  Where I was not impressed was in the way Lester chose to literally present the fragmented personality which puts Peter through hell.  A frequent visual motif comes from some shattered substance, be it a piece of ceramic art, some glass on the floor, or a pair of spectacles which seem to be covered in blood.  Lester uses shallow focus and closeups to show how these pieces encompass the totality of Peter's world, but in a distressingly straightforward fashion.  The emptiness of the home just shows we aren't really being presented with Peter's subjective reality, but a sort of detached clinical perspective which is trying to see the world in his terms.  Basically, this is cinema as sympathy, not empathy, and the lackluster visual metaphors speak more about Leter's willingness to get inside Peter's mind than anything else.

It doesn't help that the screenplay by Frederick Mensch feels like a hodgepodge of so many other psychodramas.  Peter's obsessions with his mother could be outtakes from Psycho, while the general emptiness and intrusive personalities of Peter's home recall the little-seen William Friedkin film Bug.  Both those films coach the psychosis in humor and strong visual styles, especially the way paranoia and dark lighting form a contrast to the explosive ending of Bug.  All of Peter's rants read like a second draft run at conveying a multiple personality character.  Even without getting into the problems with trying to center the film on that sort of character anyway, it mostly ends up communicated with Peter yelling to his "mother" while getting ready for a date which may be entirely in his head.

Some closeups and shallow focus are about the extent of Nightingale's style.

Some closeups and shallow focus are about the extent of Nightingale's style.

So if the direction is disappointingly straightforward and the screenplay in need of tightening up, the task was left to Oyelowo's shoulders to bring Peter to life.  He takes over where the 360 shot leaves off at the beginning, taking Peter to a girlish falsetto of happiness and a guttural cry of despair when he thinks he will be left alone for the night.  Oyelowo brings great physical transformation to each of Peter's mental states, creating a boyish vulnerability when he's mocking "mother" in his powder blue underwear, to the neatly pressed uniform he briefly models for himself before settling on a stylish suit.  His ending transformation is perhaps the most unsettling, not because of what it says about Peter, but the conditions which led to his fractured reality.

Those last scenes show a brave performer willing to go to the depths his character needs, to embrace the naked fear his fragmented reality has left his day-to-day existence such a burden.  A talented performer can lift a production, but not always save it.  The rest of Nightingale shows professionals dutifully fulfilling the roles their titles require with little of Oyelowo's bravery.

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Tail - NightingaleNightingale (2015)

Directed by Elliott Lester.
Screenplay written by Frederick Mensch.
Starring David Oyelowo.

Posted by Andrew

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