BY ROB HULSMAN
Nil By Mouth is an ugly film about ugly people with ugly lives. The reason it’s getting so much “buzz” is that it’s Gary Oldman’s foray into writing and directing.
Which doesn’t change the fact that it’s dark, slow-moving and over all resembles the work of a first year film student. The likable and very talented actor should definitely not quit his day job.
Nil By Mouth plods over subjects such as drugs, alcohol, and spousal abuse, never offering any real insight into any of them. The characters go through the motions of their lives, but there is never a sense of any motivation or substance behind them.
The film is centered around main character Raymond, played by Ray Winstone. Rockers may recognize Winstone from Quadrophenia, but just barely. The man is a barrel of a gorilla awash in excess. He spends his nights trolling strip clubs, snorting and drinking his way into a blind state of rage, stumbling home like a dry powderkeg. His poor wife Valerie (Kathy Burke) endures his callous attitude and stinking cronies. Head down and quiet, like a shell-shocked vet, Valerie steers clear of any form of provocation that could set Raymond off. Valerie also has Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) to contend with. Billy is Valerie’s drug addicted brother who slowly deteriorates as the film drags on.
Note the words slow and drags.
All 128 minutes of Nil By Mouth feel more like 256 minutes. The film’s jittery “documentary” camera style that fades in and out of focus whilst swinging erratically from one character to another doesn’t help matters. Not to mention, they should have popped for a few more lights so that if a viewer became somehow interested in the film, he might actually be able to see it.
This is not to say that the entire film is a waste. The cast puts up a formidable struggle in the midst of bad direction and writing, somehow squeezing a few poignant moments out of the movie. The scene in which Billy and Valerie’s mom Janet, played by non-actress Laila Morse in a stunning debut, drives Billy to a drug dealer is quite intense. The look on Morse’s face of curious horror as she allows Billy to shoot up in the car is priceless. Janet’s firmly grounded sense of reality is what holds the half-glued family together. Janet lives with her mom Kath (Edna Dore), an elderly woman who just observes disappointedly as her family spirals into violence and substance abuse.
Winstone also checks in with quite a vicious performance. His Ray careens through life, pint in one hand, feeling up strippers with the other. Ray is the categorical alpha male amongst his yes man pack of “friends.” His temper is untamed and he will turn on someone faster than a pet raccoon. Ray’s cocaine-fueled rage bubbles over onto everyone around him, but never quite makes it with the audience. Why is Ray angry? What caused this sort of decline in his life? These questions, along with many others regarding character motivation are left unanswered. Instead, we only glean thin slices of Ray’s life, leaving large portions untouched and wanting. The film hovers over pointless stories passed in bars, but never gives the viewer a peek behind the character’s mental curtain. This makes most of the more desperate scenes unsatisfying and ultimately makes the viewer not care what happens to any of the film’s characters.
Oldman’s stated goal was to make a movie about ordinary people in modern London. The problem is, these people are TOO ordinary. A movie that is this low-key must have some hefty, clever dialogue to lift it above everyday life-Nil By Mouth does not. The movie does however deserve a Golden Mamet for the number of swear words, but the overwhelming use of them nullifies their impact.
Not to give away the conclusion, but when a satisfying end does seem at hand, the film drags past this point. This anti-climactic (even by this film’s standards) ending just adds insult to injury. To make matters worse, Eric Clapton scored Nil By Mouth with his usual lily-white “blues,” somehow rendering an already pointless film even more shallow.
It would seem that Oldman’s ultimate point is that family is what matters most and is who will always be there for you. Unfortunately, this message is so muddied by unlikable, shallow characters and bad writing and direction, it just doesn’t cut. The film is unsatisfying and for the most part unremarkable. Now what is Oldman ACTING in next?