HBO Films’ Nightingale, starring (and only starring) the incomparable David Oyelowo, sometimes feels like a Broadway adaptation of Psycho. Claustrophobically shot and tensely scripted, the drama is a one-man show with an unreliable narrator and long pauses so thick with dread that they make your hairs stand on end. Even at 82 minutes, the film is an endurance test, exercising excruciating caution in how it teases out (but never directly provides) answers to the unnerving enigma that is Oyelowo’s Norman Bates-esque protagonist, named Peter.
It’s clear from the outset that something’s not quite right in the residence that Peter says he shares with his apparently domineering mother, who remains suspiciously out of sight as Peter gleefully rejoices to himself about a “change in my circumstances.” The house’s silence is deafening, and Peter frantically engages himself in conversation so as not to feel it, using a video camera to record his daily musings and wax lyrical about an old army buddy he admits he hasn’t spoken to in some time.
Despite those attempts, the overpowering isolation of his existence is emphasized by the fact that Nightingale is shot almost entirely from within Peter’s house – on the rare occasions that he goes to work bagging groceries, you only see him leave the home, then re-enter it. It doesn’t seem that you’re missing much, though – the consistency with which Peter postures, rages and begs from his kitchen table suggests a man just as chained to the residence as we are.
Nightingale could be set in any time or place were it not for Peter’s frequent phone calls, first from a clunky house phone then through a new iPhone he buys himself in celebration of his “changed circumstances.” Subtly, the film gets at the prevalence of loneliness in a culture that has made contact with the outside world easier than ever, charting Peter’s descent into madness as he tries with increasing desperation to establish any meaningful conversation with another human being. He fumes at Gloria, the wife of his army friend, who won’t put him through for reasons that soon grow clear, lies through his teeth to his mother’s increasingly concerned friends, and records video diary entries (presumably posted to YouTube) about his preparations for a dinner date that obviously isn’t going to happen.
A sense of doom hangs heavy over those conversations – whatever Peter has done, he hasn’t given himself any sort of intelligent escape route – and Nightingale is skillful at depicting two separate nooses tightening around his neck, one pulled taut by worried outsiders and the other he’s subconsciously using to choke himself. From the movie’s opening minutes, it’s clear that none of this is going to end well. But even as Peter’s fate crystallizes, Nightingale loses none of its uniquely indistinct narrative thrust.
Credit for that is due mostly to Oyelowo, who soars in his portrayal of a disturbed man coming to terms with actions that have sent him down a forbidding and inescapable rabbit hole. The actor was egregiously snubbed by the Academy for his towering work as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in last year’s masterpiece Selma, and here he delivers another powerhouse performance, finely sketching the intricacies of Peter’s suggested mental affliction in how he adopts the character’s nervous tics, frightened glances, unnervingly elegant (then enraged) manner of speech and timid body language. This is an individual so horrified by his own dark deeds that he’s putting on a show for himself, brandishing civility as a weapon as he tries to justify his actions to no one other than himself. Oyelowo, with remarkable restraint, captures that chilling masquerade in its entirety.
Even when Nightingale is searingly slow, which is often, you can’t bring yourself to look away from Oyelowo for a second. The flashes of madness in his emotive eyes are emotional firework displays; and director Elliot Letser is so uncomfortably intrusive in his filming of them that you feel as if you’re seated right across the table from Peter, and all the more scared of him for that. Whenever Peter snaps, spittle flying while he bellows down everyone from his army buddy’s wife to his horrified sister, it packs more of a punch than any CGI explosion ever could.
There’s really little more to Nightingale than Oyelowo’s performance. He’s in every scene, and writer Frederick Mensch makes some decisions that seem to place us inside Peter’s head, meaning that you only really see what he wants you to. That’s sometimes infuriating, especially when the outside world comes close to intruding but is kept at bay by either Peter’s machinations or camera cuts, but it works to give Oyelowo a truly terrific stage from which to deliver some of his finest work. Indeed, some shots make everything but the actor’s expressive features fade into darkness. What’s left is the indelibly stomach-turning image of one man staring forward, into the mirror and the void both, terrified beyond words by the monsters he sees staring back.
David Oyelowo delivers an unnerving and unforgettable performance in this nail-biter of a one-man-show.