Nightingale is a perfect contradictory title for a film about a man totally and utterly trapped, whether by his sexuality, his stale, too-familiar house in a Chicago suburb, religion, or his mother, who never appears but has locked him in her world as much as anyone. David Oyelowo stars as Peter, a military vet living in his mother’s house who is slowly but surely losing his mind—and he’s the only person in the entire film (save for two people heard briefly); we’re as locked into his little universe as he is, and it’s a nerve-wracking, brutal journey. Nightingale subtly asks what it means to be surrounded by screens and not by human contact, and what it does to your mind especially as it wrestles with what it wants and what it’s been told to be. A darkened shot early on of Peter, drinking wine straight from the bottle with a vacant expression, answers the question too well.
Oyelowo, as you may have already heard, is brilliant. Peter has already at the start of the film committed a brutal crime and is already unstable, speaking into his computer and carrying on monologues (to no one?) but he’s never a monster. He’s even charming, often very funny, and Oyelowo gives him a desperation coupled with a violent tenderness. The film’s short 80-minute running time proceeds as Peter covers up his crime, goes on a spending spree, and repeatedly tries to have an old military friend over for dinner, a man he clearly loved all too well.
The screenplay by Frederick Mensch never answers whether this was mutual but then the film never leaves Peter’s perspective, it’s great strength: We are constantly in his point of view, allowing us deep empathy but also to see his growing madness and remove from the world with terrible clarity. A comparison can be made with Rope in experimentation and intensity. The cinematography and skilled direction also toss in deep sensory colors, suggesting Peter’s hunger to be out of the closet and free of his constraints, and then force Peter and ourselves back into the prison of the home he has spent too long inside of.
However, the staginess of the setup here is a big limitation (it’s not a coincidence it’s now playing on HBO). Director Elliott Lester does a strong job opening up the script but it still feels like a TV movie. The ending too works as a whole with the story but the final monologue is too maudlin and pat compared to the “show not tell” nature of the film before. Still, this is a haunting, well-made film, and one about a queer black man and his tragic, blinded need for love and companionship—Hollywood doesn’t make many films like this and until the cinematic universes die, never will. For that and Oyelowo’s bravura acting alone it’s worth seeing.
dir. Elliott Lester