One-person shows represent a formidable challenge on stage, and the intimacy of the screen only magnifies those hurdles. David Oyelowo and director Elliott Lester have done a creditable job of clearing them in “Nightingale,” an HBO movie pickup that charts one man’s isolation and madness within the claustrophobic confines of a single house. Uncomfortably stretched even at 82 minutes, the film manages to stay intriguing by dangling questions without overtly answering them, leaving the viewer to essentially putty in gaps as Oyelowo’s character rages, pleads and rationalizes away his actions – and indeed, life.
Written by Frederick Mensch, the movie opens with a voiceover in which the protagonist, Peter, discusses a flash of clarity he’s experienced. Soon enough, it becomes clear that he’s been working a dead-end job while living with his mother, who is suspiciously unseen while he muses enthusiastically about a “change in my circumstances.”
Before you can say “Norman Bates,” Peter is answering the phone, concocting lies about mom’s whereabouts; and placing calls to an old army buddy, growing increasingly irritated about the wife not putting him through as he plans for a visit that obviously won’t happen. Agitated and fidgety, it’s not hard to see where Peter’s fate is heading – it’s not like he’s clever about accounting for mom’s absence – but the film dribbles out tidbits until we get there, while providing Oyelowo (most recently featured in “Selma”) a showcase in a vehicle that comes from Brad Pitt’s Plan B.
Despite some visual tricks — like letting Peter step into the sunlight — “Nightingale” is partly handcuffed in its contortions to keep Oyelowo alone onscreen, and outside voices to the barest of minimum. Indeed, even at its relatively brief length, the movie feels padded, as if this would work better as a “Twilight Zone” episode.
That said, Oyelowo delivers an electric performance, creating a portrait of a man whose loose hold on reality is fraying. It’s a gutsy piece of work, leaving the audience to contemplate the details (some merely amusing, like why this required a casting director) once it’s all over.
HBO’s acquisition doesn’t mean the network is doing much to herald “Nightingale’s” arrival. Tellingly, the movie is running on a Friday, as opposed to the usual Saturday slot for movies, mere days before the Emmy eligibility window closes. As “let’s just throw this on and hope for a nomination” maneuvers go, it seems more brazen than most.
Actors tend to love such exercises, and “Nightingale” feels more like a fascinating monologue than it does a wholly realized film. Still, the combination of the auspices and watching Oyelowo dig into this tortured soul reeks of class, which is enough motivation to carve out a timeslot for a subscriber-based network that has the occasional luxury of narrowing its focus to the point where, in the servicing of talent relationships and the pursuit of accolades, it’s acceptable to be playing to a near-empty house.