Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters — these are the relationships given preferential treatment in the film world. But when those pairings are switched, danger lurks around the corner. Be it horror films like “Sleepwalkers” and “Psycho” or lighter fare like “The Graduate” and “Throw Momma From the Train,” strong bonds between mothers and sons or fathers and daughters can lead to complications later on for both parties. “Nightingale” — the new film acquired by HBO from director Elliott Lester (“Blitz”) and first-time screenwriter Frederick Mensch — fits snugly into this latter grouping, as half a film filled with volatile relieved repression and half without any new ground to cover.
It’s fitting, really, that only one of two offending parties is shown throughout the 82-minute feature. “Nightingale” is a one-man show, with 2014 breakout David Oyelowo owning the screen both figuratively with his absorbing presence and literally by never giving it up. Starting off with the revelation he’s killed his mother, Oyelowo’s Peter Snowden spends the rest of the film explaining why — even if he never really connects the dots himself — both in schizophrenic outbursts and to an online audience through his video blogs (which, for once, don’t feel like a writer’s ploy for exposition).
Because of the film’s brevity as well as its small, almost imperceptible shifts in direction, it’s best to keep spoilers light. And really, there aren’t any. “Nightingale” covers well-worn ground, retelling a tale told best by Alfred Hitchcock in “Psycho,” though altered here to cut out any character other than the killer. At its best, the film plays as though you’ve been brought inside Norman Bates’ home and kept there, forced to live with him as he rebels against his mother. The relationship is complicated, to say the least, as Peter is shown bending quickly from one extreme to the other. Within the same breathe, he’s telling his sister (over the phone) how their mother “isn’t really that bad” and then screaming obscenities at her invisible presence for purposefully hiding the espresso machine.
That duality is repeated to varying degrees throughout the picture, and handled deftly by Oyelowo. While many may point to his loud outbursts and slow physical transformation as awards bait, it’s what he does between those scenes that’s really striking. Oyelowo captures Peter’s extreme highs and lows with an equal amount of enthusiasm, passion and grace. But, just as crucially, he balances the false narrative Peter creates with the real emotions driving it. When he talks to friends and family, you can see and hear the truths come out thanks to Oyelowo’s shifting vocal patterns or deliberate pacing.
Oyelowo makes you feel for the man, even when the script paints his character a bit too thin. Before the first 45 minutes are up, the audience has a good understanding of who Peter is and why he’s doing what he does. It’s literally left to Oyelowo to carry us the rest of the way, and he does so without reaching an inch too far. Many actors would try to make up for what’s not there, but Oyelowo puts his faith in the character even more than the script. He lives in Peter longer than anyone else would want to, and that’s what keeps “Nightingale” together.
Despite his efforts, “Nightingale” runs out of gas just past the halfway mark. What felt like a tense thrill ride with an enticingly unknown finale quickly devolves into a predictable trek to where we’ve been oh so many times before. No new revelations lie behind the many corners of a small house — captured tenderly by Lester and cinematographer Pieter Vermeer — even if Peter’s closing message is moving enough to make up for its redundancy.
Perhaps what works best about “Nightingale” is its self-awareness. Oyelowo clearly knows every inch of his character and utilizes that knowledge with the utmost precision. But Lester and Mensch, too, are keenly in tune with what they’re creating. Rather than manufacture an ending similar to “Dog Day Afternoon” — a finale some may find viscerally appropriate — they boldly downshift the tempo in an effort to remain true to the character. That change of gears is also what makes the film drag, but it’s in line with Peter’s story. “Nightingale” is overshot to appear more cinematic and underwritten to avoid pomposity, and that’s okay. Both decisions are just that: choices to serve the character. Peter would be pleased with how his little film turned out.