One of the fascinating things about “Nightingale,” the single-character HBO movie starring David Oyelowo as a troubled war veteran, is its portrayal of the soldierly bond.
Oyelowo’s Peter Snowden is obsessed with Edward, a guy with whom he served in the Army years ago. After a chance reunion in a library, Peter desperately wants to strike up the friendship again, despite the many signals, from both Edward and his wife, that Edward isn’t interested. Among his many problems, Peter is deluded, and he nonetheless begins to plan a dinner for Edward, dreaming up elaborate ideas about what he’ll serve and what he’ll wear. We even see him trying on outfits, a grim version of those dating rom-com montages.
For Peter, the only connection that has ever felt authentic to him was military, when he and Edward had each other’s backs under fire. In the years since he served, everything in his life has fallen apart, and he is lonely, angry, and broken. He has romanticized his time with Edward to the point of absurdity, and at moments in “Nightingale,” he acts as though he’s in love with his former buddy. He muses aloud about his “love that knows no boundaries” for Edward, and he says, “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for that man.” The possibility that Peter has sexual feelings for Edward is clearly afoot, but his orientation is never nailed down in the script, by Frederick Mensch. He might just be feeling brotherhood and the lingering intensity of having shared hard times.
Wait — did I say that the power and ambiguity of the soldierly bond is one of the fascinating things in “Nightingale,” which premieres Friday night at 9? Alas, it’s the only fascinating thing about this movie, the only idea in the movie that isn’t blaringly obvious and hammered home. It’s a shame. What could have been an evocative journey into the mind of a lost veteran, as he opens up his thinking across a one-man show set entirely inside his house, is more like a quasi thriller revolving around a very mad hatter.
Right away, we learn that Peter is a kind of Norman Bates from “Psycho,” since he appears to have murdered his mother. We learn about that probability at the very beginning of the story, which turns everything that comes after it into the musings of a demented killer — not exactly Baby Jane Hudson from “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” but not NOT her, either. If we’d been able to find sympathy with Peter first, and later learn about his twisted violence, the movie might have had a chance to develop an impact. Instead, we’re just watching very bad get worse, with no surprises and very few philosophical or psychological insights. (By the way, I’m assuming that Mensch uses the names “Edward” and “Snow-den” in such close proximity for a reason, but I’m not sure what that reason is.)
The movie features a number of devices that attempt to add variety to the monotony of being in the same home throughout. Peter talks on his phone and his mother’s landline a lot — to his sister, to Edward’s wife, to his mother’s friends, who are wondering where she is — and he films videos of himself on his phone and his laptop that we watch. The minute a three-paneled mirror arrives at the door for his mother (“Can’t afford HBO but we can afford this,” he mutters, a weak in-joke), we know we’ll be seeing him in it before all is said and done, a fractured man. And we do indeed.
And as that fractured man, Oyelowo — so memorable in “Selma” and in a miniseries called “Five Days” — certainly holds the screen. I’m not sure, though, that he quite finds the right pitch as he negotiates the script’s over-the-top vision of his character. I didn’t know who Peter was when the movie ended, and I wasn’t sure Oyelowo knew, either.
Starring: David Oyelowo
Time: Friday, 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.