Jennifer Kent‘s The Nightingale opened yesterday. It has a 79% Rotten Tomatoes rating, but that number should be in the 90s. It’s a difficult sit but a very worthy and highly respectable film. The only problem is that it drops the ball around 15 or 20 minutes before the ending. Reactions?

Posted on 6.16.19: The controversial highlight of the just-concluded Sydney Film Festival was the adverse reaction to Jennifer Kent‘s The Nightingale (IFC Films, 8.2) during a 6.9 screening at the Ritz Cinema.

Except I saw The Nightingale three or four days ago and didn’t think it was quite as horrific as Sydney festivalgoers did. Rough stuff, yes, but delivered with a kind of stylistic restraint.

Set in 1825 Tasmania, the film is a rough-round-the-edges revenge drama in which Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, is determined to pursue a cruel British officer (Sam Claflin) and three underlings after they rape her and then murder her husband and baby. Clare hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker, to guide her through the island’s jungle-like wilderness on the trail of the killers.

The audience complaints were about two scenes in which Clare is savagely raped, the second time in gang fashion. Her infant child is also killed in the latter scene.

Give all this negative build-up, I was surprised by how much I admired and respected The Nightingale, the awful cruelty and brutality notwithstanding. Kent is a very scrupulous and well-focused director, and she’s simply incapable of delivering over-the-top violence for its own sake. Start to finish The Nightingale feels well-honed and exacting. It depicts terrible things, but it’s not a wallow. It conveys a sense of justice and appropriate balance.

But there’s also a point in The Nightingale in which which everything changes and it all kind of falls apart — the story tension vanishes. It happens somewhere around the 75% or 80% mark when Clare loses her nerve in her quest for revenge. From that point on it doesn’t work. Because the film has delivered what William Goldman used to call a “drop-out” moment -— i.e., when something happens that just makes you collapse inside, that makes you surrender interest and faith in the ride that you’re on. You might stay in your seat and watch the film to the end, but you’ve essentially “left” the theatre. The movie had you and then lost you, and it’s not your fault.

Jordan Ruimy said he didn’t care for The Nightingale. He cited “the needless use of shock brutality, the cartoonish portrayal of relentlessly evil scumbags, the meandering and unnecessarily long narrative. I know many at Venice and Sundance liked it but it was such a slog for me.

“There are two movies this year that audiences have absolutely hated but many critics raved about: The Nightingale and The Souvenir.”