“I said, ‘Mother I am a grown man.'”
As the title suggests, Nightingale frames its tragic hero around classic Greek Mythology. There are many myths supporting this story, and its usually one of a character who “sings a song of sorrowful lament.” This HBO production made for TV is less than an hour and a half but feels about 15 minutes longer than that, which is never a good thing for movies. It’s boring and repetitive, honest and hypnotic. As much as any film of this breed I’ve seen, Nightingale is a stage play brought to Hollywood life in the smallest scope of the phrase. It’s a one-man vehicle of a story, a literal singular performance for its one – and only – character to grace the screen. Make sure to give this film a try if you’re interested in high quality performance of any kind.
Peter Snowden (David Oyelowo) is our lone star, a character literally snowed into his own hollowed out existence. He’s a recently returned war veteran trying to adjust, while entirely maladjusted, to the world which left him behind. Peter’s also a murderer. I say that because as he goes to work, comes home, cooks and drinks his ass off until he passes out, his mother’s corpse lays rolled up in her favorite quilt. He has Norman Bates level mommy issues, although they never quite veer into an Oedipus Complex. Instead he’s fueled with anger, hate, and a childlike duplicity. It may seem like I have laid out the majority of the plot, but this is mostly refined to the opening scenes. As we cautiously enter Peter’s soliloquy life of sociopathic solitude and capricious turbulence, we’re left wondering just where in the hell it’s going to take us.
The farther along we get into Peter’s story, as well as Oyelowo’s portrayal of him, the more insight and detail we’re given. That is by far Nightingale’s strongest aspect. The slow unraveling of revelations spool out at a genius pace. Even when the picture and the action become stale, the story doesn’t. The reason being is that we get a masterful actor giving yet another incredible performance. Oyelowo is tremendous in the demanding Atlasesque role, holding the whole weight of the storyworld on his shoulders and then some. He plays his homosexual and love-spurned by a fellow army man character with such apparent ease and insight. You’ll swear he really does stand in front of the mirror trying on countless outfits while listening to “The Promise” by When In Rome (a particularly amusing scene). Oyelowo is the kind of talent that comes along once in an Elvis Blue Moon, and here we get to indulge in his exaggerated yet hyper-realistic portrayal of a tormented and soul lost, or maybe even just revealed, by the tremors of a life at war with the world, with family, and with oneself.
There are far more one-man movies out there that you might know of but can’t readily recall. 2009’s Moon starring Sam Rockwell is probably the best executed recent take, with 2013’s Gravity being its lesser in storytelling but far its superior in complete and utter isolation. Last year’s Locke is a captivating view too. Of any that I have seen, this most resembles Robert Altman’s overstated Secret Honor, a fairly fictionalized account of Richard Nixon recounting the fatal misstakes of his political career. That film ends with possibly the greatest and most schizophrenic, “F*** you!” in film history.
Nightingale is one character, one location, one centralized and self-created problem. Far too much time is devoted to Peter’s phone conversations, and instead of really getting to know him, we find out who he is through his interactions with others, all of which are masked, fraudulent, and sometimes even deathly malicious without any sort of justifiable probable cause. Nightingale pushes the boundaries of this format with a caboose of a performance pulling a lightweight script that’s only one car deep. While the output is miniscule, the effort to bring us around overwhelming exceeds its own limitations.
“No one’s gonna get hurt.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5