The Mind Is the Mystery in the Thriller Nightingale

By Robert Silva

One set. One actor. It’s a high-wire act without a net, starring David Oyelowo.

To figure out the mystery of Nightingale, one first has to get to know the mind of Peter Snowden. Played by David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King in Selma) with a motor-mouthed bravado that seems like a buttress against loneliness, he's a veteran, a supermarket cashier, an aspiring gourmand, a prodigal son, and also — a murderer.

Offscreen, before we enter the movie, Snowden has left his mother’s bloody corpse in her bedroom and covered up the crime by closing the door. He’ll forget about it — at least until the smell fills the house. Until then, he’s free to do what he always wanted: Invite someone over for dinner.

"My circumstances have changed," he deadpans into the phone, hoping to reconnect with Edward, a married Army buddy who lives in the area. The two have grown apart in recent years; Peter blames Edward’s wife, who doesn't pass along his messages. Or is his friend simply avoiding him? Looking for clues in Peter’s running monologue about what's true, and isn't, gives Nightingale a “whodunit” quality that fuels each of its 84 minutes.

That’s important, because there’s only one actor and one location in the entire film. It's an unorthodox choice, but one that offers a rare opportunity to plumb the depths of a fractured personality. It’s also riskier than past attempts at the one-person movie, a micro-genre that includes James Franco pinned under a boulder in 127 Hours, Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin in Buried, and Tom Hanks stranded in Cast Away, three survival stories whose central question is whether the hero will escape his predicament.

Nightingale’s Peter is in a different bind. He’s chosen to be trapped by killing off the only other character in the house. Over the course of the movie, the empty rooms and single voice in Nightingale serve as a reality check to the character's hopes of starting a new life with someone else. What's really stopping him from escaping? Obviously more than his mother who may have been his only real friend. "I'm gonna pick you up and we're going to hit the road like Thelma and Louise," he says, trying to set up a rendezvous with Edward. He doesn’t seem to remember how that movie ends.

And yet the part of David that does want to connect with other people is touching. For much of the movie he addresses his laptop, recording a YouTube video blog for hypothetical viewers. Later he unboxes a brand-new iPhone with slack-jawed wonder. He gets the promise of connection in the digital era, but perhaps not its potential for creating echo chambers. And so he bares his soul to an unseen audience, basking in the implicit support of a blank screen.

Oyelowo captures the multifaceted layers of humor, audacity, bitterness, hope and self-delusion that keep Peter Snowden running. Nightingale doesn't feel like a one-person movie because Oyelowo is so brilliantly alive, constantly shifting footing, like someone on a boat in stormy weather, trying to keep balance. He’d be hard to watch if his main flaw was violence, but there’s more to Peter than just that.

That’s the mystery of Nightingale. There are many clues, but few explanations. Peter’s mother was deeply religious; he could be a deeply closeted gay man. His brother died when he was a boy. He’s a veteran who could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These are pieces of a life that say something when put together, but not nearly enough.

How could someone do something like this? That's the question asked after numerous unthinkable tragedies. Personality ends up being the key to the locked cage of Nightingale. Peter Snowden's endless capacity to create his own reality, and reject all facts to the contrary, has allowed him to survive an otherwise painful life. It's also led him to a stunning act of violence. If he could have only seen himself through another person's eyes, one imagines, he could have found a way out.