‘Nocturne’ Review: Sydney Sweeney delivers performance of a lifetime in Blumhouse's unsettling, ambiguous horror
Spoilers for ‘Nocturne’
Of the four horror features released under the ‘Welcome to Blumhouse’ banner, ‘Nocturne’ is easily the best. Despite there being just seven notes in the major scale, it's possible to create an ethereal sound through a beautiful combination. Similarly, ‘Nocturne’, despite using several common tropes, creates something sublime. The film about music is like music. Which is not something one can usually say about horror features, can they?
The film, written and directed by Zu Quirke in her directorial debut, stars Sydney Sweeney and Madison Iseman as Juliet and Vivian, twins who both are students of Western classical music. Juliet harbors resentment for the more vivacious, more popular, and perceivably more talented Vivian. And for good reason. It was -- because told from Juliet’s point of view -- she, who loved music and had a passion for it -- certainly not Vivian. Why then should she get to excel? Why then should poor old Juilet be left without a ticket to The Julliard School, or without a good teacher, or without the opportunity to play solo?
After another student in the affluent private art school commits suicide, Juliet comes across her notes. Her notes are not just music, but also Biblical-looking art. Only the drawings tell a story in six steps -- steps, of course, that lead to greatness. When Juliet sees the first one, she sees herself in it. And when she sees the image holding three circular objects, she takes this as a sign to consume more of her anxiety medication. Exactly triple the dosage.
From there, it’s a series of happenings, each emboldening Juliet, each fulfilling what she believed the images prophesied. And with each step, she is more than consumed. The final step in the notebook was missing. It was only after she fulfills all the other steps that she is driven by an unknown force to draw the final one -- sacrifice. Just like the one the dead student made.
This is where Quirke’s writing and direction shines. Arguably, one can imagine that this rite she performed was somehow making a covenant with something unholy; Satan even. After all, the film alludes to Giuseppe Tartini’s famous ‘Devil's Trill Sonata’, a tune he dreamed he heard from Satan himself. Even in popular culture, the idea of making a deal with the Devil to get better at something is a common one, even if most examples are somewhat frivolous. At the same time, however, all that Juliet sees and experiences can just be seen as a result of her over-medication, degrading mental health, psychosis, and confirmation bias.
In a way, this ambiguity makes the film much more unsettling than any sure-shot answer ever could. The film sticks to this ambiguity even in its final moments. Juliet, on her big night, when all set to play in front of a large audience, has a nervous breakdown. She runs away from the stage and goes to the school’s roof and steps onto the ledge. There, she sees the light, as if beckoning her towards the abyss. As Juliet takes the step, she is transported back to the stage, where she has just finished a perfect performance and is now at the receiving end of a standing ovation. Juliet is happy. Even when the scene cuts to an art installation upon which Juliet’s mangled and bloodied body lies upside down, we see her smiling a satisfied smile. As the film ends, we see students walking past her body, no one noticing a dead girl. So, even as the credits roll, we really don’t know if she died at all. Was this too a part of her psychosis?
Sweeney, without a doubt, plays the role of a lifetime in ‘Nocturne’. From a sullen, resentful teen, to a sad one, to an angry artist, to an arrogant egomaniac, Sweeny transitions one stage of her downfall to another with such accomplishment, it deserves its own real-life standing ovation. Even in her final moments, almost emulating Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers from ‘Black Swan’, Sweeney leaves viewers shaken, unsettled, sad, and positively horrified.
‘Nocturne’, unlike many horror films that prove to be one-time watches, is a movie to be enjoyed over and over. There are no answers, and there are no twists that can be spoiled. The film begs to be examined and read and reread, as viewers try to figure out why Juliet did what she did, and what ultimately became of her.
‘Nocturne’ is available on Amazon Prime Video.