HBO’s ‘Nightingale’: David Oyelowo Dazzles in an Astonishing One-Man Performance

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All things considered, it’s pretty silly to get worked up over the snubs and slights of the Oscars — it’s an awards ceremony that just plain gets things wrong, and always has. But it still rankled most sensible viewers to see Eddie Redmayne’s awards-courting turn in the decidedly mediocre Theory of Everything take Best Actor when David Oyelowo couldn’t even land a nomination for his masterful performance in Selma. It doesn’t ultimately matter, of course; that’s not only a performance that will last, but one of many from the actor. And here’s another: in the HBO original movie Nightingale (premiering tomorrow night) he performs something of an actor’s decathlon, inhabiting the picture’s only onscreen speaking role for 82 minutes. It’s an astonishing piece of work.

Nightingale opens with a confession. Inside a seemingly normal house, as the sprinklers run, Peter Snowden (Oyelowo) speaks into a camera, expressing his frustrations with his mother, whom he lives with, and explaining how, in the midst of an argument, he “snapped.” It didn’t go well. “I wish there hadn’t been so much blood,” he says. And then, after a moment, he adds, “I can’t post this.”

Peter is something of a video blogger, but don’t worry; a couple of clumsy dialogue snatches aside, this isn’t some polemic against the insidiousness of social media or online culture. No, Peter’s confessional videos are a dramatist’s tool, a way for the painfully alone character to express himself and his feelings — and the lies he’s choosing to tell himself. Over the course of those videos, his imagined conversations, and his phone calls, we piece together a picture of who this man is: a vet with a painful past, now hanging on for dear life to a relationship of uncertain intensity with an old army buddy.

Now that his “circumstances have changed” with regards to his mother, he becomes obsessed with his friend coming over for a dinner date — a casual “catch up” engagement that’s never actually made (outside of his fertile imagination), but one for which he completely reworks his home, and that he plans to the second. And as he sits on his couch, waiting impatiently for a manufactured visit, the depths of his self-delusion become painfully clear.

Peter is, by turns, also psychopathic, sociopathic, and suicidal; it’s a performance of forceful intensity, both physically and psychologically, particularly as everything begins to unravel and his demeanor gets subtly more panicked. Oyelowo’s work here is reminiscent of De Niro in Taxi Driver or Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler — it’s a film that burrows into an unstable psyche, and nestles there uncomfortably. It’s not just a simplistic portrait of “crazy”; there’s a scene later in the film where someone very important to Peter speaks to him quite cruelly, and as you see his face fall, it’s impossible not to feel some kind of sympathy. And, frankly, some fear.

Director Elliot Lester, working with this one actor in just one location, nicely captures the suffocating claustrophobia of that home — and of Peter’s head. He creates a world where it feels like Peter would chatter as much as he does (the film is mostly free of the talking-to-oneself contrivances that occasionally sink such solo efforts), and Oyelowo is never less than convincing, even when Frederick Mensch’s otherwise adroit screenplay is a bit too on-the-nose. Which is not to say it’s a naturalistic or even terribly subtle piece of work — make no mistake, this is capital-A acting, where the audience is always aware of the one-man-show gimmick. But we’re also marveling at it, and it’s hard to imagine a contemporary actor more worthy or capable of such attention.

Nightingale premieres Friday night on HBO.