"The Nightingale" by Jennifer Kent


Australian Writer /Director Jennifer Kent drew both audience and critical acclaim for her 2014 debut film “The Babadook”, a frightening and disturbing psychological horror film about a woman and her young son.  For her second feature she looks to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.  “The Nightingale” manages to dive deep into the real-life horror of a woman stuck in the middle of the Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) genocide, also known as the Black War.  I must mention that this film contains extremely difficult imagery and is not for the faint of heart.  Kent shows just a sliver of what really happened to the women and indigenous people of Tasmania during this period.

Clare, played by Aisling Franciosi, is one of few female prisoners sent to the British penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land.  To secure her freedom she is forced to work as a barmaid and singer for the ruthless Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin).  She was allowed to get married and have a baby daughter.  As Hawkins continually denies Clare’s freedom her husband Aiden, a former prisoner himself, presses the issue with the Lieutenant and despite Claire’s warning gets them in serious trouble.  When Hawkins's long-awaited promotion to the North falls through he gathers a few of his men and visits Clare’s living quarters.  What takes place is quite possibly the most disturbing scenes ever put to film.  Aiden is told that Clare has been continually raped by Hawkins at the bar.  In a fury Aiden attacks the men only to be beaten and restrained.  Clare is then raped right in front of him and is then shot and killed.  Her baby’s unanswered cries are then silenced when Hawkins orders one of the men to shut it up.  Hawkins then takes it upon himself to travel north to see if she can secure the new post himself.

Bruised and broken Clare becomes hell bent on revenge, she gets a horse, a rifle, and heads off to find Hawkins and his men.  Although it is nearly impossible to navigate the rugged wilderness without an aboriginal guide, she finds Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).  The relationship that develops between them is rich and organic and gives the film its heart.  They find in each other a deeply tragic past and a common enemy that even if found can never bring peace.

The violence in “The Nightingale” is intense and viscerally disturbing, one such moment is when Clare catches up with the man who killed her baby.  She shoots him in the leg and as he begs for his life she bludgeons him in the face a number of times.  Clare sprayed with blood feels no relief, no satisfaction in her actions.  Meanwhile, Hawkins and the guys find an aboriginal woman and each has their turn raping her, she is then shot leaving behind her young child.  Their aboriginal trail guide Uncle Charlie can do nothing but watch these horrific acts.  

When Clare finally catches up with Hawkins and has her rifle pointed at him she freezes in a moment of utter fear.  He sees her and fires his rifle striking her in the shoulder.  Clare and Billy escape but are separated  The film's third act finds Clare and Billy reunited and entering the northern settlement.  Clare takes a different approach to take her revenge.  She finds Hawkins in the local bar and in front of him and the commanding officers sings to him.  While a little anti-climactic she tears at Hawkins's ego in front of his superiors.  After a little more abuse from Hawkins she leaves.  Billy on the other hand dresses in ceremonial white paint reminiscent of David Gulpilil’s character in the movie “Walkabout”.  In an act of revenge for his people who have been completely wiped out, he takes it upon himself to murder Hawkins and his one remaining sidekick.  He is shot in the gut in the process and Clare takes him to the ocean shore to watch the sunrise.  Does he die?  We will never know.  “The Nightingale” is a fascinating film that pulls no punches in its depictions of the real-life violence that happens to indigenous people during colonization.  It’s going to be interesting to see where Kent’s next film will take us.

"The Babadook" is Psychological Horror at its Best


“The Babadook” is Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut film and was also one of the most critically acclaimed horror films of 2014.  Winning numerous awards from festivals and critics around the world for its actors and filmmakers.  So what is all the fuss about this little movie?  Let’s take a look.

The film centers itself on the relationship between a mother and son six years after the tragic death of her husband.  Essie Davis plays Amelia in a groundbreaking performance that gives new meaning to stressed-out single mothers.  When she was pregnant and about to give birth her husband was driving her to the hospital when they were involved in a deadly car accident.  Since then her son Samuel’s birthday always reminds her of the death of her beloved husband.  Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman, is quite the handful to put it lightly.  He is a 6-year-old terror to everyone he comes in contact with and this weighs heavily on Amelia’s fragile psyche.

The filmmakers do an amazing job creating this world that Amelia inhabits.  She never has a moment to rest, always being pulled in one direction or another.  Despite all this she soldiers on trying to be the best mother she can.  One night while putting Samuel to bed he chooses a new bedtime story from the bookshelf.  It's an unfamiliar red hardcover pop-up book entitled “Mister Babadook”.  As Amelia starts to read this ominous and chilling book things get a little too scary and Samuel freaks out.  She stops reading and really begins to wonder where the book came from.  Things then start to quickly derail for the two of them.  Amelia has an outburst at work and Samuel starts to blame the Babadook for his unruly behavior.  After Samuel pushes his cousin out of a treehouse at her birthday party he is taken to a psychologist.  Amelia then starts to lose her sense of reality when at night she sees the Babadook creeping into her bedroom.  This is only the beginning of her deep descent into a dark pit of despair.  Her visions and paranoia become more and more intense.  Samuel is no longer safe around her and must fight her off.  He knows his mother is still in their somewhere and will stop at nothing to get her back.  The basement plays a big symbolic roll in the film.  It is where all of her husband's belonging reside and where the pain and fear are at its greatest.  In order to tame the Babadook, she is forced to confront the deep pain and sorrow she has been hiding from all these years.

“The Babadook” is a psychological horror film to its core.  Amelia’s deep descent into madness is due to the fact that she wasn’t able to properly grieve for the sudden death of her husband and then being thrown into the job of being a full-time mother to baby Samuel.  The guilt, blame, and regret has been building for the past six years just waiting to be released.  Deep down she wants to blame Samuel for the death of her husband and for this can’t properly love him like a mother should.  All of this festering pain and anger has created the Babadook and while you can never kill it, you can learn to live and deal with it in a more healthy way.  Amelia finds her way through this darkness and is able to finally be the mother she knows she always could be.

"Leave No Trace" is An Emotional Powerhouse


Director Debra Granik has only made 3 films and each one is an emotional and dramatic masterpiece.  Her previous film “Winter’s Bone” introduced the world to Jennifer Lawerence and now her latest “Leave No Trace” stars Thomasin Mckenzie, a young actress with a bright and promising future.  The film itself asks the viewer to contemplate a number of questions about what it is to live in a progressively modern society.  How should a person live and how society forces people to follow a certain prescribed path.  What is personal freedom anyway?  And how far does it extend?

Will is an Iraq war veteran, played by the always great Ben Foster, who lives in the Pacific Northwest with his teenage daughter Tom (short for Thomasin).  They live in the deeply lush greenery of the Portland park system.  Living a life off the grid in a sort of perpetual camping trip.  They get along great together even with no modern luxuries such as phones, televisions or internet.  They collect rainwater and scavenge for food and although Tom says she is constantly hungry they overall live a peaceful life.  They must remain hyper-vigilant about other people, especially cops and park rangers.  They train for such events.  As for money, they venture into the city where Will goes to the VA hospital to pick up his PTSD medications which he in turn sells.  They hit up the grocery store for a few things and its back home to the campsite.

The way that the filmmakers treat color makes you take notice.  The greenery of the forest is heavily saturated making it look like an unreal tropical paradise.  It’s a stark contrast against the city and civilization for that matter which feels like a concrete and asphalt prison.  Will cannot deal with society at large, but as a parent, he must care for his daughter.  Is keeping Tom segregated from modern society hurting her and her future?  This is the main question posed by this movie.  When Tom is spotted by a hiker in the woods, she doesn’t mention this to her dad.  Does she subconsciously want to be found to have more interaction with other people?   Shortly after this they are found by the police and brought in.  The woods are public lands and therefore living in them is illegal.  Tom is taken into protective custody by child services.  When asked if she is homeless, she says no.  Since she has not been enrolled in school she is given tests and asked several questions about her dad and their living arrangements.  She is proven to be a very smart and resourceful girl.  Will, on the other hand, is given a psych evaluation and is completely overwhelmed by the situation.  Eventually, he is reunited with Tom and is given a generous opportunity to live in a farmhouse.  This was given to them by a Christmas tree farmer who is sympathetic to veterans in his situation.  For Will, you can just see and feel the stress and anxiety that boils just below the surface.  He is not an outwardly angry or violent man by any means, but this is what he must do to keep his daughter as he fears losing her to the world.  She is the only thing in his life that he has some control over.

Tom is slowly introduced to a world outside of the forest and her dad.  She meets Isaiah a boy about her age who raises rabbits.  He takes her to a 4H meeting and she seems to be really enjoying herself.  This life doesn’t last long as Will can’t take it any longer.  In the middle of the night, he wakes Tom and they hit the road.  First hopping a train but she then persuades him to take a bus instead.  On a path to nowhere, they then hitch a ride with a trucker until entering the wilderness once more.  This time it's extremely cold and wet with survival now being the main concern.  Tom is starting to both worry and doubt her father at every turn.  The next morning they find an abandoned cabin to warm up and reset themselves.  After getting settled in Will says he is going out to look for food, but we gets this feeling that this is more of a goodbye.  Tom is worried about him and when he doesn’t come back the next morning she goes out to look for him.  She eventually finds him at the bottom of a creek with a severely damaged ankle, how he survived the night I do not know.  Tom is able to find help and they are brought to an encampment of RVs and trailers.  This backwoods settlement is the perfect fit for people looking to escape society and live a simpler life.  Tom loves it.  While Will rushes to recuperate, Tom bonds with the residents especially a lady who keeps bees.  When Will is finally able to walk without crutches he tells Tom “We have to go”.  She stands up to him by saying “You! Not Me!  This all comes to one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve seen in a long time.  In order to survive Will must continue on even it means leaving his daughter behind.  This need is bigger than himself and there is no answer to it.  Tom understands this “I know you’d stay if you could”  The film ends with Will once again venturing into the woods.  One thing that is not expressly mentioned is the whereabouts of Tom’s Mother, maybe I missed it somewhere but I loved this movie nevertheless.  The film feels so authentic and real with every actor adding to this complex story of not just a father and his daughter, but of deeper issues that affect us all.  This film is based on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock.  I have not read it, but it is definitely on my list.