20 January, 2010

Nil by Mouth (1997)

'You want it? You want it with me?'

Nominated for European Cinematographer of the Year, European Film Awards 1997.

A warning to the squeamish - foul language (in context) ahead.

It was based on his own childhood, was Gary Oldman's feature debut - Jesus wept. You've never seen anything like Nil by Mouth (1997) - there hasn't been another film made that deals so unflinchingly with what is still very much a problem for many women, namely domestic violence.

He is by all accounts a diamond geezer and a real gentleman, Ray Winstone, but that doesn't change the fact that he was simply born to play Ray, the self-destructive, repugnant, abusive and sickeningly violent working-class Londoner who is the focus of Oldman's film.

Kathy Burke, who is also brilliant, plays his long-suffering wife Valerie, whose life, as she herself describes it, is nothing but drunken beatings and the dread in between:

Valerie: [to Ray] When you go out, you go out with your mates, and when you are in, you're pissed out and your brain's asleep in front of the fucking television. I turn the television off, go up to bed, you follow me up at three o'clock in the morning stinking of booze. That's what I get. Either that or you're knocking me about. I'm 30 today, you know, and I feel so fucking old. You know, I'm tired, you know, I wanna be able to look back and say, "Yeah, I had a bit of fun," you know, when I'm old, instead of saying "Everyone fucking felt sorry for me!" I mean, that's the life I've got. Do you hear what I'm saying? I just don't want it. I'll, I'll find somebody else. You know, someone who can love me. Someone kind.

And it is this sense of dread that overwhelms the film - Oldman's script, while absolutely littered with foul language, is nonetheless absolutely faithful to the only kind of communication that Ray understands, except for his fists. The violence itself, while almost impossible to watch without flinching, is almost like a dance of death, with Ray seemingly powerless to break the chain of abuse that began with his old man:

Ray: Yeah, all right. I remembered that day, because I could've put [Nil by Mouth] on his fucking tombstone, you know? Because I don't remember one kiss, you know, one cuddle. Nothing. I mean, plenty went down, not a lot came out, you know, nothing that was any fucking good. And I'd look at this man that I call Dad, you know? My father, I knew him as Dad. He was my fucking dad but he weren't like other kids' dads, you know? It was as if the word itself were enough, and it ain't.
Mark: That ain't when he died though, is it?
Ray: No. He lived another ten years, slippery old cunt.

Sympathy for the devil, then? Not a bit of it - but what Oldman nevertheless achieves, particularly with the above dialogue, is an illustration of how people are nurture, rather than nature, based.

And does the film offer any hope? Well, this is where your reviewer disagrees with his European Film Awards partner, Colin, who is convinced that the 'happy ending' (with Ray apparently having seen the error of his ways and being shown as gentle and tender with his wife and small kids) is a pure sham, and that the cycle of destruction will only continue as it obviously normally does in real (as opposed to reel) life.

I don't know, but I am going to have to watch the film again, methinks - in the meantime, your thoughts would also be much appreciated.

Awards: Click here for details.

128 mins.


Colin said...

The problem I have with the ending is as follows:

Kathy Burke's Valerie is a downtrodden, broken woman. The only reason she stays with Ray is because they have children together, because she needs him, and probably because she's too scared to leave him.

She has dreams, passion, love and drive, all things Ray lacks - a situation he compensates for with verbal and physical abuse of Valerie and her brother.

After the scene where Ray nearly kicks her to death in a drug-fuellrd rage, how can anyone see hope in a man whose only method of communication is violence?

Valerie is taking him back for all the wrong reasons. She will never be happy, and the next time she 'speaks out of turn', or spends time with a male friend, or transgresses Ray's 'rules' in some other way, she will be savagely beaten.

Don't be fooled by the scenes at the end where Valerie's in the bar, laughing and joking with Ray. Her next violent beating could be that very evening.

James Drew and Colin Moors said...

Yes, I take your point Col, obviously - but what I would still ask is whether you think that, in fact, that Oldman is ironically echoing your sentiments by showing us a 'happy family'.

One can only imagine the childhood he must have suffered if he was inspired to make this film, but are we to believe that all wife-beaters, absolutely all of them, are beyond redemption, beyond hope? Doesn't the fact that Ray at least acknowledges, however obliquely, that he's the way he is because of his own Dad's neglect, indicate to you that he may be capable of change? What do you think?

Colin said...

I genuinely feel the conclusion was deliberately bereft of irony, and that, for me, makes it extremely powerful. I still maintain that no, Ray isn't going to change, and probably doesn't want to.

The film was allegedly "not based on my childhood". I personally don't believe that either.

There is a saying in psychology 'you learn what you live'. If Ray's childhood was that bad, he'd have had two choices - hide from it by regressing into himself or a 'happy place' or use it as a role model. Once you live your life subjugating people with physical and emotional violence, or indeed, being brought up in any way society deems unfit, you'll probably stay like it. Of course, I'd love to believe that the Rays of this world could change and feel more than a fleeting moment of remorse, but life tends not to be like that.

James Drew and Colin Moors said...

Point taken, completely - I think we all know someone in our lives who corresponds with Ray's emotional failings and insecurities which he (or she) cannot express in any way apart from violence and subjugation, be it physical or emotional. I can't help it - I still tend to feel sorry for such types because, as I feel the film does make clear, it is normally nurture, rather than nature. Or am I being a bleeding heart?