Any film as enervating as The Nightingale must be doing something right: it is one of the most upsetting, unpleasant, grueling films I have watched all year, and this is not something that happens without effort. If you consider (as I do) that the first mission of art is to trigger an emotional response in the person who receives that art, then mission accomplished. And this is clearly what The Nightingale intended to do, so I don't even mean for this come off as sarcasm. The film is designed to put us in a face-to-face confrontation - or, more like, nose-to-shit - with the brutality and cruelty of history, giving us none of the nice distance that a lot of movies with social messages use, as a way of cossetting their viewer. This is a movie full of rage at the way men treat women, the way white people treat brown people, and the inherent bloody-mindedness of imperialism, and it communicates that rage by trying to drown us in misery. I will not fight anybody who thinks this is an altogether wrong approach, but it's certainly a committed choice; and having made the choice, writer-director Jennifer Kent executes it with aplomb.

Kent, as I hope you recall, is the filmmaker who exploded into the world with her 2014 feature debut The Babadook, and I am certainly not the only person who has been waiting with great greedy hunger to see what she'd be up to next. There's not much of that domestic chamber horror picture in The Nightingale, except that both films demonstrate an exquisite ability to press a viewer's buttons; while the new film is certainly horrifying, it's not the same thing as horror. It is, rather, a revenge thriller Western, set in Van Diemen's Land in the 1820s right after that island became an independent Australian state, and well before it was ever renamed Tasmania. Here, we meet Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict sent to the Australian penal colony to rot for her unnamed sin. Somewhere along the line, she was purchased as an indentured servant by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), commander of a crappy little unit that's not good for much besides getting drunk and wildly firing their rifles at Aboriginal tribespeople. She's also married to Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and has an infant daughter by him; they're all three waiting for Hawkins to make good on his promise to set her free, a promise already months overdue. He has no intention of doing this, of course, and when she brings the topic up at a regimental party, he rapes her. The next day, Aidan - suspecting the crime but promising Clare that he won't make waves, very calmly asks Hawkins to please sign the papers and free his wife. This goes poorly, but just how poorly is more than the Carrolls expected: by the end of the day, Aidan and the baby are both dead, and Clare has been raped for the second time in 24 hours and left for dead by Hawkins and his two most trusted goons, Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood). After the scene in which this all happens was done playing out, I supposed that the film couldn't possibly do anything more appalling and apocalyptic in its unblinking depiction of human depravity, and I was perhaps right that nothing is more appalling than this scene, though this scene is most certainly equaled.

From here, for the rest of its exhausting136 minutes, the film follows as Clare, turned into a vessel for pure rage, chases Hawkins across the island with the help of an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who openly disdains and mocks the racist white woman he's now traveling with. What follows is almost like a parody of the traditional message movie boilerplate about two people from different races bonding due to their shared humanity; Clare and Billy bond over the clarity and depth of their hate (one of the film's best scenes finds them cursing out the English in their respective native languages at a campfire), and their relationship is more like a pair of combat veterans than it's ever friendly.

The nature of Australian Westerns, in my experience, has been that they're always darker and more attuned to the cruelty of men than their American and Italian counterparts, but even by those standards, The Nightingale has a bleak view of humanity. Kent treats this with all due delicacy and artfulness: the way she uses close-ups of Franciosi's face coupled with POV shots during the assault scenes is the farthest possible thing from exploitation, while doing a great deal to express the overwhelming horror of the incident in all its harrowing detail. For that matter, the way she uses Franciosi and Ganambarr's faces across the movie is pretty potent: both actors give superb performances, hers fueled by anger that seems profoundly tiring as it wears down her expressions and bodies, his mixed with dark amusement to go along with the disgust that washes over him every time he encounters another one of the "bloody whites". And Kent uses these performances to the utmost, always preferring to watch one or both of them to showing us the world around them, letting us feel through their reactions how heavy all of this is.

Which gets to the awkward question that the film doesn't get around to answering: so, everything is heavy and beastly and awful, and...? Other than its relentlessness, The Nightingale doesn't have anything new: it's hard to imagine anybody being stunned by the revelation that British imperialism left fields of bodies in its wake, that self-centered men with power will tend to use it for ill, especially when women are involved, or that abuse filter downwards - Hawkins takes out his professional humiliation on everybody else, more violently the weaker they are; Clare deals with her feelings of powerlessness by sneering at and dehumanising Billy, and so on. These are very much the takeaways that one expects to get from a film about British imperialism, and while I suppose that it's unfair to ask any individual film to come up with brand new insights into the human condition, when something is a eager to punish us as The Nightingale is, and at such leisurely length (the film passes by two perfectly fine places to start wrapping up its plot, I think for no reason other than to make sure the weight of it really sinks in), I don't think it's too much to ask that all that punishment is in service to more than the exact same themes that ultraviolent Westerns tend to be about. As it is, The Nightingale ends up being very little other than misery porn. It is, to be clear, unusually well-constructed misery porn, and my admiration for Kent's ability to reach through the camera and manipulate the viewer exactly the way she wants them to be manipulated is entirely undimmed. This is, by any measure, well made and extremely potent cinema; but I do wish it was doing a bit more with its wearying power than just reminding us that awful things are, in fact, awful.