When I first saw The Babadook back in 2014, like so many others, I recognized Jennifer Kent as an immediate talent to follow. The Babadook was an instant modern horror classic. 5 years later, we finally get her follow-up. It’s another uncompromising work from Kent, though a totally different genre. She turned down several studio offers (including Wonder Woman) and instead chose to stay in Australia and continue making her own work. I’ll always admire and champion that. Instead of returning to horror, Kent crafts a 19th century revenge tale with The Nightingale set in the Tasmanian outback about Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who hires aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her find the army lieutenant who raped her and killed her husband and young baby. It’s just as an uncompromising work from Kent, and would be impossible to watch if it wasn’t so expertly made by her.
Make no mistake, this film is rough. The villains seem to always do the most despicable thing possible at every opportunity, you began to feel numb to it all about halfway through. There’s just an unrelenting pursuit of violence for 2+ hours that doesn’t let up. Strangely though, it never feels like Kent wades into gratuity, despite the extremely graphic visuals and acts committed on screen. If this film wasn’t so damn well made I would hate it. A film with this many rape scenes doesn’t deserve to be this good. But Jennifer Kent never gratuitizes these moments in a way that few filmmakers can pull off. The cinematography from Radek Ladczuk is terrific. He and Kent employ a 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio that constricts the options of our characters. Natural light is used phenomenally, creating gorgeous and gothic imagery.
Aisling Franciosi is quite fantastic as Clare, just embodying righteous fury and hurt in captivating ways, keeping the classic revenge heroine stereotype authentic and emotional. She and Baykali Ganambarr are a winning duo. For a few scenes it gets all buddy comedy with them, which does feel a little out of place, but the chemistry between the two keeps those parts afloat. Sam Claflin plays a sick fuck well, and I’m always down to watch Damon Herriman play evil.
It does tend to drag on in the third act, you feel that she could have cut 10-15 minutes and arrived at the same conclusion just fine. It’s that endless punishment of violence that wears you down, at a certain point you just want them to get it over with already. It is both a revenge film and a damning realization of Australia’s history towards its aboriginal people. I don’t know that it quite succeeds at being both, but it’s still an engrossing watch nonetheless. I’d rather take a film with some issues from Jennifer Kent then a film without issues from most filmmakers anyday. I just hope we don’t have to wait 5 more years for her next film.