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‘The Nightingale’: A Brutal Study in Moral Ambiguity

The Nightingale is a film unflinching in its depictions of colonialism, imperialism, and the moral depravity they leave in their wake.

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Morals are a funny thing. As far as humanity goes, they serve to distinguish us from the lower, more bestial forms of life. With that said, it has long been an illusion that they keep humans from behaving like beasts whenever it suits them. In desperate times and harrowing circumstances we are all at the mercy of our worst instincts, and it is with this heavy message that The Nightingale arrives.

Set in Tasmania in the 19th century, The Nightingale is an unflinching nightmare of colonialism, imperialism, and the utter havoc they unleash on the people at their mercy. One such person is Clare. An Irish prisoner sent to serve out her sentence in a barely settled colony, Clare seeks freedom from a British Lieutenant named Hawkins. Unfortunately, Hawkins’ favor for Clare extends itself into a nasty series of rapes and an outburst of horrific violence.

This leads into the central plot, in which Clare tracks Hawkins and his subordinates through the Tasmanian wilderness in an effort to exact revenge. This is where The Nightingale first begins to wade into the subject of moral ambiguity, drawing increasingly blurry lines between the protagonists and antagonists of the film.

While Clare is a sympathetic character deserving of justice, she has no qualms at all in looking down upon the guide she hires to lead her through the wilderness. Billy, a local aboriginal man, has barely a hut to live in and is mistreated by all of the caucasians he encounters, be they English, Irish, or otherwise. Clare is no exception to this rule, calling him a savage, a black, and “boy” for much of the film.

The Nightingale

It isn’t until she is forced to rely on him, time and time again, that she begins to respect him. Helpless to make her way through the treacherous brush of Tasmania on her own, Clare needs Billy. Billy, for his part, does not need Clare, and has his own judgments for the “white devils” who have taken everything from him. Stolen from his tribe as a boy, Billy lost his culture, his family, and even his name to the horrors of his “civilized” conquerors.

Through their shared experiences of trauma and misery, however, Clare and Billy are able to slowly see the value in one another, and in their shared struggle to visit retribution on those who have wronged them. However, even this hope for justice is eventually mired in scarlet layers of murky morality.

When Clare is finally able to exact revenge on the soldier who murdered her baby, it is an ugly affair. A tense, bloody struggle, Clare’s first act of revenge involves chasing a wounded man up a hill and tackling him, before shooting, stabbing, and finally bludgeoning him to death. Unfortunately for Clare, the horrors of this murder only add more fuel to the trauma that haunts her throughout The Nightingale. Now, she is visited with horrific flashbacks of her revenge, along with her rape and the murder of her husband and daughter.

This lack of an easy answer for violence, the kind we would normally find in revenge movies, is one of The Nightingale‘s greatest strengths. The standard manner with which a film like this would tackle these issues would be to have the victim get her revenge, and the villains receive a brutal comeuppance. After that we roll credits, and leave the theater (or our couch) content with the notion that justice is done.

The Nightingale

However, writer-director Jennifer Kent is not satisfied with these easy answers, hence the moral ambiguity. Even the barest research into the subject suggests that the deaths of those responsible for violent, horrific acts rarely brings the satisfaction that the victims hope it will. So Kent wallows in the muddy, ugliness of it all, rather than offering us the comforting platitudes and easy answers we might crave.

There are many other avenues that are shaped by moral ambiguity in The Nightingale. For example, the cruel Hawkins is only made worse by his trek through the wilderness. Another victim of this cruelty is a child prisoner named Eddie. Survivalism is a common theme in brutal stories like this, but Eddie’s corruption and eventual destruction are among the film’s toughest scenes to stomach.

Taken under Hawkins’ wing throughout the film, Irish prisoner Eddie is eventually trusted enough to receive a gun and a rank from his mentor. Overjoyed at his prospects, Eddie sees the cruelty and brutality of Hawkins as a means to an end. If he is part of the side doing the evil deeds rather than on the receiving end of them, perhaps he can escape his life of subjugation. Eddie, however, lacks the hard-heartedness to murder an aboriginal in cold blood, and is shot down, weeping, by Hawkins as a result.

Still, not all of The Nightingale‘s characters are victims of unfathomable terror and abject misery. Two British settlers take pity on Clare and Billy during their journey, and while their dinner together is not without tension, they are ultimately decent folk. They offer their help and withhold their judgment, for the most part. This third side of the moral spectrum shows that amid all of the turmoil, there are indeed people who are just trying to get by. Left out of the bloody struggles and nasty subjugation of imperialism, these people are not so different from those unfortunate enough to be outside of Britain’s scope of respect.

Moral ambiguity is a fascinating, and versatile tool in storytelling. Responsible for some of the most powerful, and fondly remembered stories of our time, an unsure moral footing leads us to wonder about the history we have been taught, the world which we live in, and who we ourselves might become under such awful circumstances.

The Nightingale, in its depictions of lawlessness, poverty, subjugation, brutality, and depravity, offers a glimpse into a world that most of us are lucky enough to have never seen for ourselves. These are ugly traumas, but for many of us they are a part of our history. Ignoring them does us no favors, even if witnessing them fills us with a shame we’d rather not attach to the past.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

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The Best Movie Trailers of 2019

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Best Movie Trailers 2019

They exist to sell a product, but there’s also something about movie trailers that inspires certain ticket buyers to get to the theater early: the promise of movie magic. Before we have a chance to be disappointed by their final products, the best trailers are constructed to show off endless potential — the suggestion that audiences are in for an amazing cinematic treat. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but there’s nothing better than being seduced — and for a few moments, that’s exactly what the best movie trailers of 2019 do. Below are some of my favorites from the past year.

Smarmy Murder

Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s followup to The Last Jedi seems to have found a safer home for the director’s irreverence (I’m not aware of any diehard murder-mystery fans, at least), and it’s trailers have been free to lean heavily into that twisted playfulness. If you’ve gone to a theater in the last three months, it’s been hard to avoid seeing this one a million times (including at times as an ad before the previews), but the relentlessly snappy pacing, ironic edits, and pervasive shots of actors hamming it up really drive home that Knives Out is looking to be a wickedly fun romp. Whether it succeeds or not, there’s no question that the trailer makes me want it to. 

Ready or Not

This one hits more traditional beats when it comes to unspooling its gleefully barbarous premise, and knows just how to mix the tension with the violence with the cheeky one-liners. But it’s the use of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” that really pushes this trailer over the top, as the song works brilliantly for both magnifying the drama during the screaming moments, and providing an excellent contrast between its blatant romantic sincerity and the sarcastic amorality of this bizarre predicament. Also, Henry Czerny.

The Hunt

This one’s a bit more subtle about its dark comedy, but there’s no question that there are plenty of smirks lurking just below the surface of this premise. A cabal of elitists hunting a bunch of backwoods yokels for sport is the kind of satiric setup that has potential for real bite (enough to get the film’s release indefinitely delayed, apparently), and this trailer does a great job of playing that element up, suggesting a more brutal and sardonic version of The Hunger Games. The tired look on Betty Gilpin’s face as she moseys down train tracks or calmly drives over someone’s head showcases a low-key humor that hopefully is reflected in the final product. Fingers crossed that The Hunt eventually sees the dark of theaters.

Moody, Mysterious Spooks

Midsommar

There’s always something refreshing about a horror story that takes place in the daylight, and the trailer for Midsommar appeals perfectly to this sentiment. Plucky strings, tribal drum beats, and plenty of off-kilter camera angles help set the creepy stage for a relationship problem that is about to manifest itself in a physical problem, but one that is smartly only hinted at. The bright, lush environment and comforting tradition initially draws you in (like any good cult would hope), but exactly what’s in store for this young woman and her companions? Flashes of gore and deformity near the end are what linger, even after a sunny visual finale. Very enticing.

The Lighthouse

It’s possible that this trailer could have just consisted of nothing but the weather-worn faces of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe staring back at the audience, punctuated by the droning bellow of the fog horn, and that might have been enough to sell people on this thing. Of course, what follows is a stark, visual feast that also does a masterful job at dropping clues as to the possible supernatural mystery, but layering them in the potential madness. Dark, ominous trappings are slathered on as thick as the sea-faring accents, giving off an old-fashioned horror vibe. Despite a deep dislike for the actual film, I could watch this trailer forever, and dream of what else could have lurked out on that lonely island.

If Only They Lost the Song

1917

Bolstered by gorgeous images courtesy of the great Roger Deakins (whose sumptuous cinematography can only help no matter what it’s in), this trailer does a masterful job at communicating to audiences just what a nail-biter this WWI story promises to be. Starting out with an innocuous shot of two soldiers lazing beneath a tree, and ending with one of them dodging explosions, the tension is meticulously built step by step, gunshot by gunshot…until a sappy, tone-deaf song called “Wayfaring Stranger” cuts in halfway through and tries to ruin everything with hammy emotional telegraphing. It’s a curious choice, as the textured, frank visuals and dialogue don’t otherwise give off a manipulative vibe. Still, there is stirring power in that imagery, enough to make me want to see more. Just…save the song for the end credits, please.

What. The. Hell.

Bird Talk

It’s generally not desirable to feel even slightly repulsed after viewing a movie trailer, but I have to confess that the bizarre images here are cut together in a way that doesn’t quite agree with me. So why is it good? Because that seems to be exactly the sort of note Xawery Zulawski’s film is trying to hit, with its disorienting fish-eye lenswork and indecipherable depictions of what seems like general depravity, even if I can’t point to exactly why. Even the special effect for that weird flaming car looks wonky and nightmarish. Not every film has to be pleasant to work, and neither does a trailer; Bird Talk looks intense and intriguing and indecipherable, and that’s good enough for me.

Pleading For Attention (and Actually Getting It)

Joker

Every year there are trailers for movies that desperately want to be taken seriously as films, and I’m not sure there was a better example of that in 2019 than Joker. With its gritty, scum-on-the-lens look, an early burst of cruelty, and use of Jimmy Durante’s “Smile” to lay the irony on thick, there’s no question of this promo distancing the final product from traditional ‘comic book’ movies. There’s also no question that the trailer does a magnificent job at showcasing the film’s best element: a writhing, tortured, smirking, dancing, on-the-edge Joaqin Phoenix. While it’s debatable whether Joker itself ultimately deserved all the attention, putting Phoenix’s performance front and center in the trailer was the best way to get it.

The Cream of the Trailer Crop

Richard Jewell

This is a fantastic example of how to communicate an overall old-fashioned approach to sharp storytelling, yet break up the standard formula with well-timed asides. The premise and protagonist are firmly established through standard trailer character development, but it’s the interspersing of those chilling interrogation scenes that really drive the point home and solidify the character as supremely sympathetic. The soft piano notes are joined by a growing orchestra, the frequency of these inserts picks up as the blatant railroading intensifies, and by the time the crescendo hits, the trailer has told a story that we want to see a resolution to — and that subtle nod suggests it’s going to be a very, very satisfying one.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Almost a mini-movie in itself, the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood spans the range of emotional beats found in the film it’s cut from, roughly (and impressively) in the same order, all while cementing the unmistakable tone of the film’s creator. What’s being sold here is exactly what audiences are going to get, and that’s a sprawling Hollywood epic filled with sharp dialogue, offbeat B-movie/TV show asides, and a undercurrent of a looming, horrific incident that will come to a head in the last reel. An aging cowboy, a loyal sidekick, a radiant princess, and a creepily smiling ogre are set in a neon fantasy land full of make believe, where dreams (and sometimes nightmares) come true. It’s a primer for a magical fairy tale, and also the most complete, all-encompassing, masterful trailer of the year.

***

Of course, these are just my picks for the best trailers of 2019 — what are yours?

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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TIFF

The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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