David Oyelowo -- coming off a triumph and Oscar nomination in "Selma" -- is one of the hottest actors in Hollywood at the moment, and so, attention must be paid when the return to TV arrives, as it does Friday night on HBO's "Nightingale." This is a bit of an HBO re-union -- he was in 2008's "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," while TV is where this career essentially began, in the early '00s, on "MI-5" (on the list of my series-to-binge list, with Nigerian-born Oyelowo as a reason...)
"Nightingale," HBO, 9 p.m.More coverageMore TV show reviewsMORE FROM OUR CRITICVerne Gay's latest
What it's about: Peter Snowden (David Oyelowo) is an Army veteran, lives with his mother. One day, he snaps. He kills his mother -- before the film begins -- and then carries on with his life as if nothing had happened. He potters around their house, occasionally heads out to work (at a grocery store) and mostly dreams of the day he will be reunited with Edward, his Army buddy, now married to Gloria. Peter is completely mad.
My say: Rare as they are, one-person shows are usually the province of comedy and of theater -- better that way to engage the audience or break the tension, often by doing both. "Nightingale" (and HBO) clearly didn't get the memo. This film is the zig to that zag -- a long tragic single note punctuated by the occasional A flat or B sharp minor, with the occasional harsh crash of cymbals.
Enough with that metaphor: Here's another fish. They float aimlessly in a well-lit tank in Peter Snowden's house, drifting around and around and around. They are placid, their fish eyes staring at nothing, or just back at Peter.
Peter is not placid. Some stories and recaps appear to have referred to Peter's long soliloquy as a descent into madness, but that's not exactly correct -- he has already snapped before the opening credits. He has fallen and then spends the next hour and 22 minutes trying to walk back -- or rather talk back -- what he has done.
There is, he knows, a rationale to his act -- the murder of his mother -- for it is all in the service of his one great and forbidden love, Edward, whom we never meet but whom Peter assures us is his soul mate. All is for Edward. If only Edward would reciprocate. If only Gloria, his wife, would let him.
Elliott Lester's direction (off of a screenplay by Frederick Mensch) shoots Peter from different angles in the house, and different times of day, so you're not only seeing a refracted personality, but several refracted personalities. Peter talks to himself, and through himself, and occasionally another Peter talks back, even though his head is essentially just an echo chamber, of twisted rationales, hopes and dreams.
Phone calls do come in occasionally -- usually for mother -- and for those, another Peter turns up: The one who must hide what he knows he has done. It's a one-man show performed by one actor actually performing many roles.
That's the loose structure of "Nightingale" -- referring to the solitary bird that sings plaintively into the dark -- while the various themes and ideas tumble out in every scene, and every word: The tragedy of mental illness, the desperately vital importance of antipsychotics and social services; the human capacity for self-delusion that can be twisted into something monstrous when isolation meets insanity.
Peter is without question a cautionary figure. But "Nightingale" is really about David Oyelowo, a magnificent actor with astonishing range who draws viewers deep down into the darkness with his character. His skill in accomplishing this, of course, makes "Nightingale" something to be admired rather than loved, and, depending on your mood, maybe even something to be avoided.
But the real excitement here is to witness a young actor -- Oyelowo just turned 39 -- who is only at the outset of a great career, even with all the prior acclaim. His one-man HBO tragedy is just another step along the way, and only heightens the anticipation for what comes next.
Oyelowo's performance: A+