The Cycle of Violence in Jennifer Kent's 'The Nightingale'

Content warning: this piece details extremely graphic and potentially triggering acts of violence toward women and people of color portrayed in 'The Nightingale.'

Before I say anything, I’d like to mention for the record that I, like most who are engaged in pop culture trends, realize how silly, stupid, misused, and abused the term “woke” is in 2019. It’s a relatively worthless buzz word at this point, but to keep within the realm of familiar terminology and accessibility, I’m going to use it.

There’s violence and there’s woke violence. General violence is a broad category. It could be Mission Impossible or JFK or Paranoid Park or The Wind That Shakes the Barley or Too Many Cooks, if you’re into that sort of thing. In other words, violence in film doesn’t mean “action.” It comes from all genres. It can be harrowing, comical, dark, absurdist, melodramatic, etc. General violence encapsulates anything and everything non-woke. The difference between the two is in motivation, intention, and subject.

While generally violent films aim to be thrilling or funny or sickening or anything else, their motivation is entertainment and narrative development. The violence is intended to move the story along or glue us to the screen with stunt work, for example. On the contrary, woke violence could be harboring any of those motivations as a subsidiary, but its primary motivation in presenting violence is to infuse the film with a moral or ethical center. It intends to reframe violence so as to interrogate it. What does it look like to witness violence that disturbs more than it entertains?

The 21st century is chockablock with woke violence. Irreversible, Dogtooth, The Skin I Live In, 12 Years a Slave, Revenge, Lady Macbeth, Big Little Lies, Under the Skin, Beast—they all have a common thread in the ways they use violence to provoke deeper thought around the stories of their subjects and often speak against violence in the process. Their subjects fall almost explicitly into one of three categories: 1) women 2) people of color 3) corrupt institutions. The fourth category would be children, but that is a much more difficult feat to pull off without completely alienating an audience. I mean, people aren’t exactly flocking to their screens to watch Pasolini’s Salò or 120 Days of Sodom or Fox’s The Tale. But they are no less qualified or important because of their constitutive repudiating traits.

Most films that narrativize the lives of women and people of color are critiquing a corrupt institution, but I included it as a third category because films like A Clockwork Orange, Natural Born Killers, and Born on the Fourth of July use white men to critique these institutions from the inside. In contrast to films with people of color and women at the forefront, white men are not the subject of these films. The unjust prison system and unethical state institutions of human experimentation are the subjects. The unhinged institution of messy mass media is the subject. The American military-industrial complex and its greedy, bloodthirsty executives are the subjects.

Any film that wants to convince you that white men are a historically and/or presently oppressed party is probably just the new bottom-dwelling Dinesh D’Souza documentary. Woke violence targets violence committed towards women and people of color, and/or by institutions to remind us what cannot be tolerated, accompanied by proof as to why. Hence, the reason it is more disturbing than enjoyable. They are supposed to start fires of righteous anger within us, not serve as a fun Friday night jaunt to the local theater.

In the case of writer/director Jennifer Kent’s Sundance revenge film, The Nightingale, woke violence is a searing reminder of where we come from—a primitive world of kings and half-valued humans void of ethics, accountability, and dignity. But it’s not just a matter of where we come from. The violence also serves as insight into contemporary parallels. It reminds us where we still are, what injustices we still inhabit, and how we haven’t changed over the centuries. And it accurately pins the historical source of that corruption on men in power (usually, but not always, white).

Set in 1829 in the Tasmanian wilderness, it is the bloodcurdling tale of Claire (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict held captive, and her captors, a gaggle of virulent British officers led by one of the most repulsive characters of all time, Lieutenant Hawkins (move over Alexander Skarsgard, it’s Sam Claflin’s turn). After Hawkins, Jago (Harry Greenwood), and Ruse (Damon Herriman) ruin Claire’s life, she sets out the next morning for revenge, enlisting a black aboriginal named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to be her guide.

From this point on, you’ll be in heavy spoiler territory. Brave at your own risk. But also, don’t forget about that UC-San Diego psychological study that proved that people enjoy stories more when they know spoilers ahead of time. Try it!

A quick note on the definition of ‘violence.’ Violence does not require bloodshed or a physical attack. Violence can be emotional, institutional, psychological, social, political etc. The act of taking a child from their parents at the border is an act of violence. Gerrymandering in order to stunt the voting of oppressed communities is an act of violence. Blackmailing is an act of violence. Work without pay is an act of violence. The rules and regulations of corrupt institutions are violent in nature because they violate the innate egalitarianism of human nature. In The Nightingale, the erroneous victim-shaming/-blaming is violence. The total dehumanization is violence. The constant verbal denigration is violence.

The Nightingale is to the history of appallingly inhumane treatment of women and people of color what Platoon was to Vietnam. It ushered an urgent and necessarily unforgettable history of depravity into the cultural spotlight so that it might be more permanently planted in the collective memory of the masses. Because if we forget, we won’t learn from our mistakes. And humanity cannot afford to repeat mistakes on the measure of mass turpitude.

That we may never forget, Kent inundates viewers with brutalizing imagery to the point of hopelessness. And accurately so. Hopelessness is the strongest tool of the oppressor. It squashes all ambition and aspiration for justice or mercy. Hopelessness obliterates the soul. In the first 20 minutes, Claire is raped three times by two different officers, Hawkins and Ruse. During the second rape, her husband is murdered in front of her eyes. During the third (only minutes later), she watches her baby get bashed to death against a wall.

All the while, everyone is screaming. Claire screams not to be raped, her husband screams for the same, Ruse shouts at him to shut up, the baby cries in the background, Hawkins yells at a Jago to shut the baby up, Jago complains that he can’t. After the fact, Claire wails at the death of her family while the officers shriek at her to shut her mouth. It maintains stark realism throughout, ushering it in among the most disturbing scenes in film history.

Later on, Ruse tears an aboriginal woman named Lowanna (Magnolia Maymuru) away from her toddler child who is left alone crying in the woods (ring any contemporary parallel bells?). He brings her back to the camp like a prized object, excited to have a new experience. Hawkins and Ruse rape her back-to-back during which she goes silent before whispering her prayers to the still, unmoving sky. No one answers. No one comes. And when her tribe eventually comes looking for her, the soldiers murder her in front of her husband.

It might sound like the violence in Kent’s film is ostentatious or garish, but it’s not. It’s unsparingly honest about the reality of its subjects’ situation. Claire is bound by a white man in power who is wholly obdurate, like many men in power still are. He refers to her (and the other woman he rapes) as “it,” an explicit identification of his ultimate degradation of women that sticks out like a sore thumb in our newly pronoun-conscious world. Plainly speaking, she is not human in his eyes. She is an object of pleasure and utility.

Billy’s situation is no better. He and the other black aboriginals are tucked away in the unkempt wilderness, left to scrounge for scraps like the stray dogs that cohabitate their camp, enslaved by everyone around them, even Claire. She treats Billy like shit and condescendingly calls him “boy” like the British. Billy’s stint with her is only better in the sense that she doesn’t physically beat him. In Claire’s defense, how would you behave toward men, regardless of skin color, after going through what she went through? Yet, no matter how deeply we empathize with Claire, her dehumanization of Billy is unacceptable.

She doesn’t come to this realization Billy tells his own awful story. He too is a product of violence, ripped from his community, his family also murdered by British officers. The officers whale on the aboriginals, rape the women in their community, and assign them half-worth, if even that. Both of their lives are nightmarish, drowned in oppression by the white man. The arbitrary whims of their captors shape their formidable reality. Claire doesn’t have an “a-ha!” moment, but a gradual coming to terms with the fact that she is not alone in her unnamed, abused, and dehumanized existence. She goes from riding on a horse behind him with a gun pointed at his back to walking on the ground next to him. She calls him by name. She listens. She sheds her power, and consequentially, the hierarchy of their relationship.

Hierarchy is one of the more woke-violent concepts of the film. It is the social structure that awards Hawkins power and allows Claire and Billy to suffer at the hands of the British. Authority and societal value is and always will be a social construct, but there is nothing innately wrong with social construction. However, when it is configured to oppress any people group, it is built on nothing more than hollow privilege and inhumanity.

On the trail, Hawkins befriends a white Irish slave boy (about 10 years old) carrying his luggage. He offers to teach him to write his name. He shows him how to shoot a gun. He all but promises to usher him through the ranks of the British military as long as the boy is willing to carry on the tradition of corruption that Hawkins propagates. The boy didn’t earn these privileges. He was born with them. And Kent is making a point in writing him in as a boy instead of an adult.

Even the white male children have more power than the adult women and aboriginals. Hawkins doesn’t take a black aboriginal under his wing for care or teach them how to write their name in English. He doesn’t show the women how to shoot. At one point, he refers to the Irish boy as a man (while continuing to call the old aboriginal man guiding his group “boy”) simply because he can, proving that his concept of manhood is as socially and unethically constructed as the hierarchy that informs it.

Kent is not so foolish as to blame all corruption on white men, but on powerful people in general (primarily men), once again classifying power as a social construction. Perhaps the only respite from violence in the entire film is offered by a kind old white man who gives Claire and Billy a meal and a place to stay, going as far as to invite Billy to eat at the table with them. We also know the condemnation does not rest solely on the shoulders of white men because Kent recognizes corruption in non-white communities. In a heartfelt conversation between Claire and Billy, Claire asks how they fix the Hawkins-equivalents of his community. “We don’t fix them. We kill them,” Billy says unflinchingly. Whether this is the view of Kent or not is difficult to tell, but it raises some interesting questions about retributive violence.

As viewers, we salivate at the thought of revenge. Kent baits us to yearn for the death of the British soldiers for good reason. Hawkins and his men leave a scorched trail of destruction in their wake. They burn the houses they pass, rape the women they find, murder the children that annoy them, and keep their eyes peeled for their next victims. They are a stand-in for all who pillage and rape. In forming her characters that way, Kent beckons us to yearn passionately for the death of all institutions that breed hatred and corruption, as if we’ve witnessed their crimes like we’ve witnessed those against Claire and Billy.

Moreover, all the devastation wrought by those outside of power descends directly from Hawkins, Ruse, and Jago’s ruinous behavior, which, if we keep following back, descends from the men who taught them violence. Because violence is circular. Revenge begets revenge begets revenge. The cycle continues. In their manhunt, Claire and Billy adopt the sickness of their enemies while no less remaining the victims of heinous crimes. These things are not mutually exclusive. Kent proves this through the way Claire originally treats Billy. She is both victim and perpetrator of dehumanization. And in presenting her that way, Kent complicates the issue of violence.

Quentin Tarantino does this on a less intimate scale in Inglourious Basterds. We rage against the genocide committed by the Nazis. We recoil in disgust while they cheer on mass murder. So, Tarantino flips the script. He turns Shosanna’s theater into an oven in which the Nazis burn. He presents an opportunity for us to cheer on mass murder. He corners the viewer into a situation where they must root on the excessive violence (and behavior towards it) they’ve just condemned, or pardon the enemy of equally horrifying punishment, settle for a fair trial, and let justice take its course in a lifelong prison stint.

Kent does this most convincingly through the death of Jago. After Claire and Billy catch up to him early on, Claire brutally murders him, stabbing him well over ten times, and bashing his face in Jared Leto-Fight Club style. She puts a more intimate version of the retributive justice mantra in question when she plagues Claire with nightmares of the lowly officer she murdered, the only of the three who shows any sign of conscience throughout the film. In death, his annihilated face torments her. Is it because she reverted to his violent ways? Kent layers the inhumanity to show us the circular effect of violence, to demonstrate that hate begets hate, revenge begets revenge, death begets death. But what would it look like to not become our enemies? What would it look like to combat violence without continuing the cycle of violence? Well, Kent shows us that, too.

When Claire finally gets the chance to kill Hawkins and Ruse, she is triggered by the sight of the soldiers and runs away instead of shooting them. Later on, the two run into Hawkins in the nearest town. Hawkins threatens death if he ever sees them again and storms off into an officer’s lounge. With brazen courage, Claire marches into the Hall of Generals, that vile Hall of Men where Hawkins schmoozes with the higher-ups unaware of his corruption. She places herself directly in front of Hawkins, her very presence a commanding act of protest. The dingy lounge goes silent, and she speaks.

She tells him that his threats mean nothing. She is no longer afraid of him, or the looming death that hangs over her for her actions. “You can’t kill something that’s already dead,” she says coldly, not budging at his continued threats. In an awe-consuming quiet, she sings an a cappella song about wanting her loved ones back. The theater audience sat in stillness, tears streaming down most faces, I’m sure.

When she’s finished, she walks out, the other officers staring in silent disgust at Hawkins. Practically, this is not an option for most oppressed parties. But, it carries weight in its intention. Claire, a woman with as much justification as anyone to slaughter her enemy, chooses nonviolent retribution, and in doing so, ends the cycle of violence. In sharp contrast to the overwhelming violence of the previous two hours, she chooses love—love for herself and humanity as a whole.

Billy, on the other hand, is not satisfied. Late at night, he paints himself up with tribal markings, storms into town, and finds Hawkins and Ruse in a brothel. Billy chucks a spear into Hawkins’ chest while he’s having sex then proceeds down the hall to murder Ruse. Billy manages to kill him but suffers a shot to the gut in the process. He and Claire flea to the beach where he dances in the dim dawn glow and bleeds out during sunrise, the first sight of sunlight in the whole film.

In a fit of catharsis, the audience uproariously applauded at the death of both officers. Yet, as satisfying as their murders are, what do we become when we cheer on violence? Yes, their deaths are technically “just” in that they are an equal punishment. If I were in her shoes, I imagine my rage would overcome me, and I would want retributive violence, as well. But it takes much greater strength for her to abstain from the evil devices of her enemies. And as sober-minded spectators, we can recognize that the confrontation in the hall of men could’ve put an end to the cycles of violence she was wrapped up in.

The movie ends on a hopeful note, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, there’s little chance Claire roamed free. The small island of Tasmania was swarming with British officers who were in tight communication, and she murdered or would’ve been considered an accomplice in murdering, three of them. Maybe Kent includes Billy’s choice to enact retributive action alongside Claire’s choice to carry out nonviolent action to contrast the two, but because we already have the contrasting violence of Claire’s original act of retributive justice, I think she includes it for a different reason.

Kent includes Billy’s violent retributive justice to marshal us into the present where the cycle of violence continues, especially against women and people of color. This isn’t to say that the descendant violence that exists today is Billy’s fault. If it weren’t him, it would’ve been someone else. For every Claire that chooses nonviolence, there are ten more that choose violence. And if Billy had walked away, the reigning violence of powerful men would have persisted as it has today. But we must ask ourselves: how far will retributive violence take us? With nonviolence, there is hope for an end. Can we say the same for bloody retribution? Or is violence an eternal cycle?

Luke bleeds film and music, got his master's in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.