In the course of an extraordinary acting career, Gary Oldman has portrayed, among other outcasts, the drug-addled punk rocker Sid Vicious, the possible presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and the notorious bloodsucker Count Dracula.
They're all choirboys compared to the barbarous South London blokes Oldman gives us in Nil by Mouth, his first film as writer and director.
This raw, almost plotless slice of life, all boozing and brawling and raving, is clearly an act of catharsis for Oldman. A welder's son, he grew up in the same kind of rough working-class neighborhood we see in the movie, among the same kind of violent, fuck-all self-destructives we encounter. There, but for the grace of God, go I, he seems to be saying. But there's nothing condescending in his view: Oldman may also have played Ludwig Van Beethoven and Reverend Dimmesdale, but he's still a tough guy who honors his roots.
The protagonist here is a ham-faced brute named Raymond (Ray Winstone), who's stuffed himself so full of drink and drugs and rage that his embattled wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke), is at risk, along with almost everyone else within punching range. While Eric Clapton's guitar wails away on the soundtrack, Raymond rampages through pub, mean street and gloomy household, smashing everything in his path and loosing a string of obscenities that are, in many places, mercifully unintelligible to the American ear. Raymond's complaints? The same ones that have afflicted the British working class since the days of Look Back in Anger: poverty, hopelesness, incoherence.
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Raymond's dim-bulb brother-in-law, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), is no better off: His heroin habit, beheld in the same vein-busting detail as Trainspotting's, now costs sixty quid a day, and he's grown stupidly desperate. For Burke's Valerie, a hollow-eyed survivor with eyes in the back of her head, the present is a nightmare, the future a dark pit.
Aside from the wife beatings and the bellowing, enacted in a cloud of cigarette smoke and social disorder, nothing much else happens in Nil by Mouth (the title comes from a common emergency-room directive). Unlike most other films directed by actors, this one is more a triumph of atmosphere than of character, and 128 minutes' worth of atmosphere this grim may prove an ordeal for some viewers. However, admirers of the gritty, naturalistic, "kitchen-sink school" of British moviemaking are liable to find a bit of cinematic heaven in Gary Oldman's relentless South London hell.
Nil by Mouth.
Written and directed by Gary Oldman. With Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse and Edna Dore.