David Oyelowo’s performance in “Nightingale” is the reason the film is debuting on HBO on Friday night, or, indeed, at all. Premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival, this intentionally claustrophobic look at one man’s surrender to insanity made its way to Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, and thence to HBO.
From the opening moments, it’s obvious what Pitt and HBO saw: Oyelowo, who recently delivered a very different but equally powerful performance as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” is a miraculous actor, capable of turning water into wine and back again. And as far as an actor can fill out and bear up a scanty script stretched far beyond its natural dimensions, he most certainly does.
Unfortunately, without a more solid platform, even the greatest performance can go only so far. Oyelowo is mesmerizing in the moment, but each moment dies behind him. Though a bit similar in theme and construct, “Nightingale” is no “‘night, Mother.”
We meet Peter as he speaks to his laptop, making a video in which he explains why he has just killed his mother. He had simply wanted her to leave their shared home long enough for him to make a nice dinner for an old Army buddy. When she refused, telling him “not in my house,” Peter lost it.
Not that he regrets his actions — he has already moved far down the socio-path of self-justification. He only wishes there hadn’t been so much blood.
The film, directed by Elliott Lester, takes place entirely in Peter’s house during the weeks after the murder. Designed by Richard Lassalle, the home is a visual paean to stultification, down to the outdated beige cradle phone.
As Peter attempts to begin his new and “liberated” life, which includes a more open relationship with his friend from the Army, the first thing he begins to do is redecorate, beginning with an iPhone.
Inspired, in fact, by a 2003 matricide in his native Palatine, Ill., screenwriter Frederick Mensch leverages in fiction the inevitable question: What could lead to such a crime?
Oddly enough, Mensch doesn’t seem prepared to answer that question. Peter treats his mother’s murder as inevitable, and so does the script.
Convenient tropes — Peter was in the Army, though it is unclear whether he saw any action; Peter’s mother was controlling and possibly homophobic, though it is unclear whether his friend was ever, indeed, his lover — are crisscrossed in the rather cynical assumption that these things somehow prime a person for murder.
A woman’s body lies decomposing off screen for many of the opening minutes, but our sympathies are clearly directed toward Peter, so thrilled to finally begin his new life. As the story progresses, his delusions stretch, rent here and there by terrible rage. When his friend does not return his phone calls, Peter blames the man’s wife, harassing her with such ferocity that it seems impossible that she never calls the police. Similarly, his sister’s attempt to reach her mother continues for an unbelievable length of time.
With his sub-managerial job at a local store, his sexual issues and his internal war between feelings of inadequacy and self-aggrandizement, Peter is pitched as an Everyman in extremis.
He’s not, of course; he’s a psychopath. That Oyelowo can make both seem true is what makes “Nightingale” dazzle. Which is not the same thing as shine but, still, something to see.
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)