So bitingly real is Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth that it plays like a documentary of an ordinary family. A family in which Daddy violently beats Mommy, who is pregnant, and where Mommy's younger brother is a heroin addict.
Highly lauded at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Oldman's film is raw, white-knuckled angst on celluloid. Not surprising, as Oldman has made a career of playing ultra-intense characters like Sid Vicious and the edgiest Beethoven to grace the silver screen. Oldman's first venture behind the camera, directing a script which he wrote, reveals almost too much of its creator.
Nil by Mouth centers around an impoverished family living in Deptford, a London ghetto. But like the film itself, the realities of the family's plight aren't immediately apparent.
The story opens in a smoky club, the burly main character, Ray (Ray Winstone), ordering drinks in a difficult accent. Oldman's wavering camera introduces the characters in an intimate manner, with the super close-ups highlighting Ray's sinister grins and the sad, tired eyes of his wife, Val (Kathy Burke).
It doesn't take long for darkness to set in as Ray is revealed as an immature, wife-beating drug-addict who gets in fights and cruises nudie bars while ignoring his spouse and daughter. His friends cater to his sophomoric whims. His wife and his mother-in-law, Janet (played brilliantly by newcomer Laila Morse), can do little to quell his belligerent behavior.
The family dysfunction manifests in brutal violence. Val's younger brother, Billy, little more than a junkie himself, steals drugs from Ray. Ray responds by pummeling Billy, finally and savagely biting him on the nose.
Bleeding profusely, Billy runs away, begging for money and taking refuge at Janet's home. He steals from Ray's home, demands money from Janet and goes through desperate withdrawals. Shots of Billy shooting up may be excessive, but they make Trainspotting look like a high school project.
Oldman sets this amidst a dank, subversive cityscape. The sullen dreariness of the city is a larger metaphor for the hopelessness of the characters. There is no sunshine to wash away the torment of a battered wife or strung-out junkie.
The gray metaphor continues in Oldman's characterizations as rules of right and wrong are blurred in impossible family relations. When Ray, who fondles strippers freely, suspects the loyal Val is cheating on him, he beats her savagely and relentlessly, to the point of temporarily disfiguring her. Yet when her mother discovers her, she claims to have been struck by a car.
And when Billy, bloody-nosed and wasted, begs for drug money, his grandmother accepts, figuratively and literally turning her head. Oldman's female characters are anti-heroines - not angelic, but survivors. Right and wrong are blurred in a twist of vodka and heroin.
But rather than hatred, Ray inspires pity, exploding into a manic rage, then settling into infantile, schizophrenic ramblings alone in his broken home. He's sadly likable as he relays stories of his father, then sheepishly begs for Val to return. In the end, the only symbol of hope is Ray's daughter releasing a red balloon into the sky. As it vanishes, it innocently cuts through the desolation, and you're suddenly appreciative of your own childhood.
Landmark Greenway Theatre