Nightingale is first an intellectualized puzzle, and a portrait of a man losing his mind a very distant second. The filmmakers never impart an impression of having to tell this story. Rather, we’re watching them work through the familiar challenge of constricting an entire film to one location and, in this case, limiting it entirely to one character, Peter Snowden (David Oyelowo), a veteran who lives with his mother, resents his sister, and is obsessed with someone he served with in the military. At the opening of the film, Peter has already killed his mother off screen, after an escalation over whether he could have the house to himself for a night to entertain his married army buddy who never intended to show up anyway. Wiping blood off his glasses, Peter speaks into his computer, posting monologues about his mother’s bitterness, his eagerness to have dinner with said buddy, his family’s friends’ insistent meddling, and so on. It’s clear from the outset that Peter has wriggled himself into a situation with no exit, and we’re to watch as the vice squeezes around him.
Nightingale is somewhat reminiscent of Secret Honor, Robert Altman’s film of a play in which Richard Nixon, as portrayed by Philip Baker Hall, discloses his increasingly unhinged thoughts on his legacy, and even occasionally recalls William Friedkin’s Bug, another filming of a play, which also follows troubled people in tight spaces as they succumb to interior demons. But Nixon and the lunatic played by Michael Shannon in the latter film are more interesting characters than Peter Snowden. One of the great achievements that Hall and Shannon’s performances share is their searing ability to erase the figurative chalk lines of concept and structure; one isn’t aware of them as performers, or of their productions as self-conscious explorations of working with limited resources. Oyelowo gives a fatally intellectualized, editorialized performance that’s clearly the exertion of a talented, charismatic artist who’s attempting to play a loser. The actor’s line deliveries are just that, and they seemed to have been calibrated for the impersonal gracefulness of their projection rather than for their verisimilitude or stylistic urgency or eccentricity. There’s a hemmed-in aura of remoteness and self-control around Peter that doesn’t logically scan considering that he’s supposed to be a delusional egocentric prattling off in an Internet dimension of his own creation. That reserve isn’t Peter’s, but Oyelowo’s, and it’s detectable in every one of his performances, for better and worse (in Selma, that remove, that palpable warfare between emotion and calculation, fits).
There’s no element of escalation in Nightingale either. At the opening, Peter has hit bottom, and the filmmakers regard him as he flounders there with little sense of formal invention. The film boasts the sort of cinematography that’s characteristic of other HBO productions: The colors are rich, polished and lifeless, even anonymous. Director Elliot Lester occasionally attempts to approximate Peter’s mindset visually with blurry and over-deliberate fade-ins and fade-outs, but those gestures are over-compensatory tics that fail to take us into Peter’s interior realm.
Nightingale is tediously literal-minded and anal-retentively “worked out.” There’s something stiflingly theoretical about the movie, which is obviously intended to chart some sort of intersection between this country’s war culture, the escalating panic over the eroding financial viability of what was once called the middle class, and the narcissism that’s fostered by Internet culture. Every detail feels planted, whether it’s the arrival of a new three-panel makeup mirror that allows Peter greater access to talking with himself, or his laughable pretensions of being a cook (despite using frozen fish). The filmmakers fail to tread truly dangerous ground because they fail to empathize with their character, leeching Peter’s blossoming madness of a sense of flesh-and-blood urgency. The result isn’t so dissimilar to a dull dinner party with someone who routinely insists on how accomplished and interesting they are, telling you rather than showing.