Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nil by Mouth

Directed by Gary Oldman
United Kingdom

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.

Editor's Note: The following review has very strong language.

The 1997 film Nil by Mouth contains 428 uses of the word “fuck.” It is currently ranked number three on the list of the most uses of the word “fuck” in a non-pornographic film. It quickly becomes apparent very early on during a long scene that takes place inside one of the main character's homes. The men lounge on couches and tell raunchy jokes and stories. The language hits the audience like a brick wall. “Fuck” is used as everything, a noun, a verb, an adjective, and I think there may have even been an adverb thrown in there. The women hide in the kitchen, looking exhausted and fed up with the proceedings. But it is obvious that they have passed the point of caring. As the story gets worse and worse, the camera slowly reveals something that shocks the audience: a little girl, no more than seven, sitting on the floor and coloring a coloring book. She is completely catatonic. Another man, a junkie named Bill, approaches her and tries to speak affectionately to her. She doesn't respond. Unfortunately, he is the only person who even notices that she is there during the onslaught of profanity.

But such events are business as usual in the home of Ray and Valerie. They live in a small home in South East London where the days mix together, only to be broken by nightly excursions by Ray and his friends Mark and Bill. They have a ritual of descending into the city where they indulge in drink, gambling, drugs, and questionable company. The women in their lives are far from caring. When Ray's mother, Janet, asks Valerie where they are going, she replies that she doesn't know and she doesn't care. She knows what they are up to, but it doesn't matter anymore. Like her daughter, coloring away on the floor, she has long since been desensitized by the everyday realities of what Ray and his friends do.

But this isn't unusual. Nil by Mouth is a film about tired people living tired lives. Maverick actor Gary Oldman made his directorial debut with this film where he channels the experiences of his own childhood growing up in South East London. The film contains a powerful intensity that has haunted me ever since I have seen it. He directs with a piercing eye that takes us into the depths of depravity and deep into the soul of a family set to implode. Armed with his cinematographer, Ray Fortunato, Oldman commands the streets of London and the shabby neighborhoods that his characters inhabit. To watch is to witness, and it is a miracle that Oldman was able to show so much with so little.

Oldman's incredible directing is matched, if not surpassed, by the performances that this film contains. How do I describe the acting? Well, it would help to look back on some of the best performances that I have ever seen. But not just the best, the most terrifying. The performances that stay with you long after you have left the movie theater. Let's see. There's Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Then there's Joe Pesci from Goodfellas (1990). Oh! And Tatsuya Nakadai in Ran (1985). Probably more than any other performances that I have witnessed, these three haunt my memory. That's not to say that they are necessarily the best ever captured on film, but they certainly are some of the most memorable. The mere thought of Rowland's screams, Pesci's wiseguy routine, and Nakadai's staring face send chills up my spine.

And yet, the actors in Nil by Mouth seem to emulate, if not surpass, all that made these performances great. Is it really surprising that Kathy Burke (Valerie) won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actress Award or that Ray Winstone (Ray) won the British Independent Film Award's Best Performance by a British Actor in an Independent Film Award? These two performances alone could solidify Nil by Mouth as a classic. But they are complemented by incredible performances from a magnificent supporting cast. There's Charlie Creed-Miles as Billy, a young drug addict who gets the money for his habit from his mother. There's Laila Morse (Oldman's sister) as Janet, who's complacency is matched by an unspoken vengeance by the film's end. And there are all the other people who surround themselves with the small family of Ray and Valerie. They form a microcosm of comfort and misery against the poisonous environment where they are forced to reside.

And comfort is what all of them seek. Billy seeks comfort at the end of a needle, sometimes going so far as to shoot up inside his mother's van while she keeps watch. Ray and his pals seek comfort at the bottom of a bottle. It's clear that they were once big and important. Most of their stories are about the old days. Maybe their constant trips to strip clubs and bars is a way for them to imagine that life is good again. But no matter, it doesn't stop them from getting jealous and beating their wives.

And now we arrive to the event upon which the entire story hinges. Valerie goes out with her mother and her friends. At a bar, she starts to play pool with another man. It is completely innocent, but when Ray walks in an sees it, he immediately assumes that she is having an affair. Of course, he ignores that she is currently carrying his child. But with all the alcohol in his system, all he sees is his wife and another man. So when they arrive home, in one of the movie's most horrifying scenes, he savagely beats her. Later, we see Valerie with her face reduced to meatloaf. It is badly bruised, swollen, and misshapen. Something that always bothers me in films is when the hero gets in a fistfight and then looks fine the next day. That isn't what happens in real life. When a person gets punched in the eye, it doesn't matter how tough they are, they will get a black eye. If somebody is punched, thrown to the floor, kicked, and stomped on, then they will look like shit. Needless to say, in a following scene we see Valerie limping up some stairs. She pauses, groans, grips her stomach, and falls down. Cut to her in the hospital, and we know the child is gone.

The rest of the film concerns Ray trying to set things right with Valerie. He tries to confront her, but her friends and family forces him away from her. He is forced to break into his own house where he angrily destroys everything. His rage is one mixed with the sorrow of a husband who has realized that he has committed a great sin against his beloved. It reminds me of Stanley Kowalski beating his fist against his own front door and howling, “Stella!” Ray's own reconciliation is not as poetic as Stanley's. He mumbles over lines, looks down at the ground, and even manages to say the one thing that should never be said in such a situation, “I only did it cos I love ya.” Obviously he doesn't understand how to express his feelings. Whether or not they are genuine is up to the audience. But personally, I think they are sincere.

I see Ray, and all of the character's in Nil by Mouth, as victims of their environment. During a particularly poignant scene after Ray has assaulted Valerie, he makes a long confession to his mates. He explains how his own parents constantly fought. His father virtually lived at the pub and always smelled of drink. He was never there for him or his mother. We sense that all of his violent impulses are rooted in his father's behavior. But then he says something that may, or may not, truly absolve him from blame. He explains how one time when his father was in the hospital they visited him to find a strange sign above his bed that read “Nil by Mouth”. The conversation continues:

I said, "Well, what's it mean?" She said, "It means... ”

Mark: It means nothing to eat.

Ray: Yeah, nothing down the...
[points into his mouth]

Mark: Nothing down the... Yeah.

Ray: Yeah, all right. I remembered that day, because I could've put that 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...He died one afternoon in that fucking armchair...And I just touched him, you know? He was fucking freezing cold. It frightened the life out of me. I was looking at him, you know? For the first time in my life, I talked to him. I said, "Why didn't you ever love me?"

Now, just because his father mistreated him doesn't mean that he isn't responsible for his own actions and the death of his own unborn child. But they do make us think. If his father had been there, would Ray have been the man that he had become? Would it all have come to this? Of course, to many this is an unforgivable sin. And many may be repulsed by the ending where the entire family has reconciled and Ray sits in a chair kissing his neglected daughter. But I don't know. At least she isn't getting nil by mouth...

Editor's Note: That's it for this year, folks. I'll see you on January 1st with a movie that I have been dying to review for months. Happy New Year!



  1. Wow, uh, thanks for the strong language warning! Where is Boondock Saints on that list, btw?

    P.S. I think the f-word CAN be used as an adverb, actually.

  2. Number 23

    It beats out "The Departed" (2006). But it was beaten by "Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back" (2001). So "Nil by Mouth" contains roughly 200 more f-words.

    And could you use the f-word as an adverb in a sentence?

  3. Well, you would just need to use it like an adverb, to modify something other than a noun: a verb, adjective, or other adverb.

    So... *ahem*... "It's f*ckin' cold outside! I f*ckin want to build a f*ckin awesome snowman, right f*ckin now!"

    ...*ahem* I don't really know if it would be possible to MAKE the f-word itself into an adverb, as in, to do something in that particular sort of way... "f*ckily"?

  4. Well, it's only a matter of time.....

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