'Nightingale': LAFF Review

Nightingale LA Film Fest Still - P 2014
Joseph Cultice

Nightingale LA Film Fest Still - P 2014

Through a commanding performance and an inventive visual scheme, a riveting portrait of a most unreliable narrator emerges.

David Oyelowo plays the sole character in a drama that tracks the vlog-chronicled mental breakdown of a military vet.

Director Elliott Lester and actor David Oyelowo took on an uncommon challenge with Nightingale, Frederick Mensch’s one-character screenplay tracing the disastrous delusions of a fractured mind. In the wrong hands, the movie would have been thuddingly stagy or a relentless downer. But its depiction of a man undone by mental illness is no horror trip into misery; what makes the disturbing story gripping, beyond Oyelowo’s spellbinding performance, is its humor, defining compassion and incisive imagery. A nightmare painted in fauve-bright colors, the feature is a live-action expressionist canvas with a fascinating portrait at its center.

Lester’s third film, after Love Is the Drug and Blitz, received its world premiere in the Los Angeles Film Festival’s inaugural L.A. Muse section, devoted to "Los Angeles as a source of inspiration for filmmakers and artists worldwide." The single-location feature doesn’t name its suburban setting, but it was made in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Tarzana (quickly, too — shooting days totaled 16).

In his follow-up to Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in which he played the title character’s civil-rights activist son, the British-born, classically trained Oyelowo adds another memorable American character to his resume. His busy slate of upcoming screen work includes a turn as Martin Luther King in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a role that’s sure to draw mainstream attention. Nightingale’s difficult subject might limit its audience, but Oyelowo’s work in it will heighten his profile among critics and filmmakers.

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The story unfolds entirely in and around a nondescript house, on the kind of quiet street where neighbors would never imagine the terrible doings under its roof. When the movie begins, the brutal deed has just taken place, as Oyelowo’s Peter Snowden explains on his vlog. (That surname, especially in combination with the story’s Web angle, reverberates as intended.) Glances toward the closed bedroom door at the end of the hall indicate where Peter murdered his mother. He slips into the room to retrieve his blood-spattered glasses; later, he’ll deal with the body.

It’s the shattering of Peter’s sense of reality that concerns Lester, not the gruesome details of his act. Peter regrets the messiness of it but is emboldened by the "change in circumstances" to pursue a friendship with an Army buddy who has become an obsession. Edward may be the only person who, however unintentionally, ever made Peter feel seen and valued, or he may simply be the random object of an unrequited infatuation. Addressing his unseen, and no doubt minuscule, online audience, Peter speaks of the good times he and Edward shared and uses the word "love," but as with everything this unreliable narrator says, the layers of self-deception and posturing are myriad.

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If Peter is now free to invite Edward over, something he couldn’t do when his churchgoing mother was alive, he’s still arguing with her and complaining about her to his "followers." Along with the smell of a rotting corpse, an air of disapproval hangs heavily in the house. With its Jesus figurines and dated doodads in sugary pastels, the decor occupies a place between lived-in clutter and hallucination.

Director of photography Pieter Vermeer heightens the dreamscape of Richard Lassalle’s production design with a bold assortment of effects. At times the point-of-view shooting calls too much attention to itself, but mainly the kinetic camera and use of selective focus are potent ways to express Peter’s splintered perspective. The clothing designed by Bic Owen — from Peter’s work uniform, with its short-sleeve shirt and childish bow tie, to the high-styling ’70s suit that was once his father’s — reflects the varied facets of Peter’s personality in a way that’s right in sync with the film’s mix of the everyday and the exaggerated.

In his video blog and when he’s fielding unwanted phone calls from relatives and family friends, Peter dissembles, wheedles, rages and, bit by bit, gives himself away. On the unheard other side of his phone conversations, especially with his sister in Denver and his mother’s friend in Mobile, suspicions mount. At once clued-in and oblivious, he embarks on a manic redecorating project for dinner with Edward, having finally reached him — or did he? — after a series of drinking-and-dialing episodes of rising verbal violence.

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Mensch’s sharp screenplay doesn’t overexplain his damaged protagonist. Whatever indignities and traumas Peter has suffered — in the military, in his family, at the Super U Market where he works — are suggested but unspecified, Oyelowo’s masterful portrayal conveying a lifetime of friendlessness and buried despair. It’s a performance that gets the writhing interplay of transparency and opacity in a character who has gone beyond the deep end of unhinged narcissism and self-dramatization.

Lester has found not only the right actor but a superb group of creative collaborators, and he choreographs the claustrophobic story in a way that’s dynamic but never gimmicky. From the multiple reflections of Peter in a three-way vanity mirror to the subtle cacophony of Mark Todd’s score, the director uses his resources to build an unsettling mood that’s rooted in psychological pain. Nightingale doesn’t excuse Peter’s behavior, but it makes it understood. And given the role of YouTube profiles in recent crime cases, the movie’s vlogging element raises timely questions with real-life resonance.

Production companies: BN Films, Weinstock Entertainment

Cast: David Oyelowo

Director: Elliott Lester

Screenwriter: Frederick Mensch

Producers: Josh Weinstock, Katrina Wolfe, Elliott Lester

Executive producers: Alex Garcia, Lucas Akoskin

Director of photography: Pieter Vermeer

Production designer: Richard Lassalle

Costume designer: Bic Owen

Editor: Nicholas Wayman Harris

Composer: Mark Todd

No rating, 83 minutes