NIghtingale (HBO)

Happy wife, happy life.

Happy wife, happy life.

(2015) Drama (HBO) David Oyelowo, Barlow Jacobs, Heather Storm. Directed by Elliott Lester

It isn’t often that we here at Cinema365 review movies made for television, even for HBO, perhaps the most prestigious maker of television movies. While ’tis true that Nightingale got a limited and minuscule theatrical release both here and abroad, this movie, which continues to play on the cable giant and is also available on such streaming/downloading services like Amazon Prime, iTunes and Vudu, demands attention.

Peter Snowden (Oyelowo) has just done a very bad thing. He has brutally murdered his mother. She is a Bible-thumping, domineering woman who constantly treats her son, who served in the Army in the Middle East, as a child, refusing to allow him to invite an army buddy, Edward, over for dinner. That appears to be the last straw.

Except that Peter isn’t what you’d call the most reliable witness. He has anger issues, is a pathological liar and clearly delusional. He is falling apart and his matricidal actions have sent him spinning further out of control down the darkest path a man can take.

This is a one-man show, depicting Peter within the confines of his home. He records video blog segments, speaks to his sister on his cellphone and at times attempts to wheedle Edward into coming over, generally speaking to Edward’s wife Gloria who doesn’t want Peter within a hundred miles of her husband (and for good reason).

To Peter, Edward is more than a friend – “I would do anything for that man,” he declares and judging by his level of obsession towards him we can believe it. As the movie progresses we discover that Peter’s fondness for Edward may go beyond Army buddies; there is certainly some romantic and even sexual overtones that are never overtly stated, but are clearly there.

What makes this film work is Oyelowo’s brilliant performance. Snubbed by Oscar for his work in Selma which by all rights he should have gotten at least a nomination for, he has been at last embraced by Emmy for which he has justifiably received a nomination. We are put in a fairly confined space with Oyelowo and he has to hold our interest for 90 minutes essentially all by himself, and he does so superbly. There is a great deal of nuance, from the fits of rage, the moments of sadness and loneliness, and the calm near the end when events are spiraling towards their inevitable conclusion.

Of course, it’s not just a crazy war veteran talking to himself, although there are moments of that. We hear him trying to deflect concern of his sister and his mother’s friends from church who all want to know where she is; their increasing suspicions drive Peter further around the bend. Besides the phone conversations, he talks to a folding mirror in which his reflection is refracted into three separate images, an overt symbol of his splintering mind, and often he addresses his dead mother as if she is still with him. At other times he feels crushing guilt for what he has done.

This is an emotional roller coaster ride, the intensity of which might catch some by surprise and others may be too much to handle. The filmmakers pull no punches; they make no judgment on Peter (and in fact at times we feel sympathy for him) but only present his deeds and his words for review. Certainly we recoil in horror at what he does to his own mother (thankfully, all off-screen) and at his attitudes towards those who would keep him away from Edward who more and more seems to resemble some sort of life preserver to his psyche which is clearly going under.

This is very much like watching a car accident; you’re horrified but you can’t look away. If I have a quibble with the movie, it is that at times it is more acting exercise than film, but the acting is so extraordinary that you can forgive the movie its flaws.

We have reviewed documentaries that HBO has created, and this and other films have shown an increasing willingness from HBO to exhibit their films in theaters, which of course is an entirely different experience than seeing their films at home. This is a movie that works perfectly well on the home screen and in fact, that may be a better medium for a film like this. Regardless, Oyelowo’s performance is worth viewing all by itself; it is one of the finest you will see in a theater or at home this year.

REASONS TO GO: An exceptional, Emmy-nominated performance by Oyelowo. Realistic and intense.
REASONS TO STAY: More acting exercise than movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Very loosely based on a case that occurred in Illinois.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: ‘night, Mother
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Trainwreck

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