There is no discussion of Elliott Lester’s “Nightingale” without David Oyelowo. The psychological drama is openly an actor’s showcase, subscribing to a single character and location with the same verve as its unavoidable soulmate, “Locke.” Like that film, it also turns to technology for sneaking a bit of exposition. An Iraq war veteran rants daily to the webcam on his bulky laptop; he mentions a video blog, which we never see, and his many followers, whom we realize likely don’t exist. But the choice to never confirm the matter either way poses the film’s most interesting question: among a million other disgruntled, grainy pleas to camera on YouTube, how simple would it be for an uploaded act of violence to pass by ignored?
Surveillance and privacy inform the entire narrative and character, as clumsily seen in the last name of Oyelowo’s Peter Snowden. He has priorities jumbled though, to say the least. The version of his life that Peter wants to curate—a hopeful relationship reborn with an old Army buddy—is picked over far more than the fact that he’s just killed his mother. Her body rots in the bedroom of the drab single-story suburban home that Peter shares, but he treats that like a plugged-up drain. Faced with a house to himself and “mental clarity,” Peter first sets out to rebuild his life while keeping up appearances to the outside world.
This sort of vehicle requires that an actor fully place his trust in the director, and Oyelowo’s classically trained talents land in Lester’s hands for its duration. Tearing into his solo role with an arch intensity, he shifts from a cordial, almost-regal tone into blind rage a second later. The phone conversations he maintains with family friends and siblings are also a balancing act of fiction and constantly-muddled timelines: Peter must manage his sister, who fears their mother has grown angry with her, while the mother’s bridge partner wonders after her following a no-show.
Lester wisely lets his DP Pieter Vermeer loose on the material—even down to Peter’s character the film is a theatrical affair, and to counteract that leaning, Vermeer burrows into Peter’s mind with a variety of intriguing visual schemes. What could’ve been a flat, amateurish production takes off in moments of high-strung tension, where the outsides of the frame blur as the Peter’s world overwhelms him. Attempting to wriggle out of a phone call or considering the next option, the camera rarely leaves Peter’s eyes, Vermeer’s work adding a layer of storytelling that frankly, the script can’t muster elsewhere.
Both cast and crew know the expectations of such a formal undertaking as this. We quickly understand that we’re playing to a different set of rules; when other characters approach the house, we know they will not enter because that would break the solo act that is Lester’s filmmaking challenge. The excitement though comes from how it’s presented and where the film breaks away from convention, and “Nightingale” too often sits in rote developments and stilted dialogue that Oyelowo almost makes work.
You can feel the film start to wander and repeat after its initial stages, inventing new roadblocks that grow tiresome. An interesting note early on, Peter’s pursuit of his former Army friend ultimately rings hollow, while the recurring video blog posts start to expose themselves as necessary exposition and little more. The film continues to root plot in a wave of fatalistic dread, hoping tension and a highly subjective POV will lead the film out of a simple acting exercise. It’s only intermittently successful: Oyelowo and a fine visual tone provide this film with a great deal of mileage, but Lester’s formalist approach quickly become more irritation than creative stimulus. [C-]