Europe's premiere overactor, Gary Oldman, has decided to take
the next step and try his hand at writing and directing. He's
gone to Frenchy pal Luc Besson (whom he worked for in The Fifth
Element and The Professional) to help produce Nil
By Mouth, a low-budget, semi-autobiographical drama about
life in working-class South London. The raw-boned result galvanized
critics at last year's Cannes film fest. In America, the reception
has been less energetic. The film's press kit describes it as
"a realistic look at modern day England rarely depicted in
motion pictures." No small wonder, since Nil By Mouth
feels less like a dramatic motion picture and more like a method
acting workshop gone horribly awry.
As a director, Oldman conducts his actors in the same loose, improvisational
style as early Scorsese--which means that this film is probably
as easily digestible to the average American as Mean Streets
is to the typical bloke in Blackpool. This ain't no Full
Monty here, folks. Oldman's story generally concerns working-class
patriarch Raymond--best described by his family as "an 'orrible
bastard." Raymond shovels blow up his nose hole, drinks more
than Roger Ebert on a summer day and frequently brutalizes anyone
and everything in his path. And the rest of the family ain't doing
so great either. Raymond's brother-in-law, Billy, shoots heroin
and steals money from his poor mum. Raymond's wife spends most
of her time at the local bar and sincerely hopes that the second
child she's carrying will "fix" things in their marriage.
Reality is an admirable result in filmmaking, but this one's a
bit too naturalistic. This is cinema entirely stripped
of symbolism and metaphor--call it cinema vérité
taken to its uncomfortable extreme. It's like Trainspotting
without the lust for life (as Iggy Pop said) or Leaving
Las Vegas without the ironic weight.
Oldman is trying to make an ensemble piece, but spends his time
hopping unevenly between characters. At first, Nil By Mouth
concentrates on Billy, whose club-hopping, drug-sucking story
reads like an old British punk movie (the dull parts of Rude
Boy perhaps, or the drugged-out parts of Sid and Nancy).
After a while, Oldman focuses his camera on Raymond. Ray Winstone
(sort of a British horror movie version of John Goodman) is frighteningly
realistic as the abusive boozer. Oldman claims this film is "semi-autobiographical,"
and his portrait of Raymond would tend to lend credence to the
claim. Raymond could easily have been an evil cinematic ogre--instead,
he's a pitiable creep (so how was your relationship with dear
old dad, Gary?). About an hour into Nil By Mouth, Oldman
turns up the domestic violence, and things go from bad to ugly.
When the home fires start churning, Oldman finally decides this
movie is about Valerie, Raymond's abused wife--and he pushes aside
both Billy and Raymond to tell her tale. Kathy Burke won the Best
Actress award at Cannes for her portrait of the physically and
emotionally bruised housefrau. I find the lauding a bit odd, since
her character doesn't even emerge from her quiet domestic shell
until the film's final reel. Better still is Laila Morse as Janet--Billy
and Valerie's mother. Though she's never acted before, Morse doles
out an iron-clad perf. In
the midst of all this numbing domestic horror, there's a grueling
pathos to watching Janet drive her ailing son to score some smack
or stare down her monstrous son-in-law. Morse's character is the
true moral strength of this whole piece. Too bad Oldman
couldn't see that.
Being an actor!, Oldman gives his cast plenty of
long monologues to mouth, and there is an interesting dynamic
to watching these people spout off endless randy jokes when their
own life situations are so brutally humorless. The thick cockney
slang and over layered dialogue will make it mighty hard for most
non-Brits to decipher, though. Behind the camera, Oldman relies
on tight, hand-held close-ups--a faux documentary style reminiscent
of early John Cassavetes or early "NYPD Blue." But at
two hours and 10 minutes, Nil By Mouth takes its bloody
time getting to where it's going. A professional editor is the
one thing most sorely needed here.
Still, there's an unflinching honesty and a brusque reality to
this scabrous tale of addiction, violence and co-dependency. I
guess I'd rather watch it than live it--but I'm still not convinced
I really wanna watch it either.