A sorry bunch of losers is lined up for our viewing discomfort in Nil By Mouth, Gary Oldman's faintly autobiographical directorial debut.
Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) is a young drug addict, scamming his friends and stealing from his family in order to feed his habit. Ray (Ray Winstone) is maudlin, violent drunk who gives his wife Valerie (Kathy Burke) a shocking, senseless beating. Others in this tightly knit, economically depressed social circle merely look on, powerless or uncomprehending.
Making such a stark and miserable movie is a bold step for Oldman, and one that promises a notable directorial career. But this debut is not especially well achieved. Nil By Mouth takes a long time to find its dramatic centre and its most vivid moments of invention.
Once it begins to become more experimental in its editing and elliptical in its narrative structure (in the manner of a Maurice Pialat film), then its other elements – highly naturalistic acting and a wandering, observational camera – finally make some sense and begin to carry an impact.
Nil By Mouth makes a cheery double bill with the Australian film The Boys (1998). The two movies have much in common. Both essentially avoid social analysis of the ills they present: life is a just a scary, violent mess, shown and lamented from the inside. Although Oldman does not prey on the audience's sense of mounting dread as much as The Boys' director Rowan Woods, he provides a similar parade of what Jean-Pierre Gorin once called "all the obviously depressing moves".
Both filmmakers are fixated with the pathological condition of male violence as a kind of dark, original sin. Where Woods takes his atmospheric cues from David Lynch and Abel Ferrara, Oldman owes a large debt to John Cassavetes' Husbands (1970) and Mike Leigh's Naked (1993).
This is not only because Oldman's style has an edgy, nervy, blurry quality located between ultra-realism and painterly expressionism. More profoundly, he borrows from his mentors a certain, profoundly despairing view of the relationship between the sexes. Men are driven, compulsive animals and women are mournful victims. They occasionally make a stand and yell a few stinging truths, but are nonetheless always ready to forgive their abusers and take them back in.
Nil By Mouth's bleak vision of gender politics is no more misogynistic than Woods'; however, Oldman's greater empathy for and understanding of the men in his story is betrayed by the moments of rough humour that he allows them to share.
Finally, perhaps, the film aims to blame neither men for their innate viciousness nor women for their acquiescence – it is simply too overwhelmed by the infernal, never-ending cycle of misery in which all these sad characters are caught.
The closest that Oldman comes to any analysis is in a series of pained monologues that target the prevalent "lovelessness" of this social world – especially the lovelessness passed down from father to son. And yet the drama we see (as opposed to the words we hear) give a slightly more nuanced and feeling account of the problem: it is not so much the lack of love that hurts as the inability to express it in any real, meaningful or lasting way.
It is the ache of that inarticulate longing which gives Nil By Mouth its small but telling measure of insight and art.
© Adrian Martin May 1998