Friday, January 18, 2013

Nil by Mouth (1997): Time-Shift Ending

I’m not much of a fan of horror movies. I can become engaged in stories about real-life horrors, because they can resonate with me, but usually I don't get very worked up about poltergeists, zombies, Satanists etc. And to me few horror movies are as genuinely disturbing as, say, Harry Brown, a 2009 Michael Caine revenge thriller set in a nightmarish South London where people live in fear of going outside their own door because of the gangs of muggers and junkies in the street. It made London look as squalid as the worst parts of New York in the 70’s, and even nastier and more depressing. Most of the film seemed to be set at night, in a drizzle of rain that wasn’t even atmospheric, just annoying.

Now from my own experience of living in London for about 30 of my 45 years I do indeed think it can be a depressing place, though that’s more to do with things like the punishing cost of living, difficult workplaces, and thoughtless people. Most Londoners I’m sure have far more experience of having a metaphorical knife stuck in them by someone they know well than a real knife stuck in them by a stranger. Still, at night, there’s clearly a certain tension and surliness about people in the streets, and maybe I’ve never been mugged just because I’m a guy who’s 6 foot 2 and weighs over 200lbs. If you come to visit from New York or Paris or Amsterdam you might not notice it, because probably those cities have the same mood. But whenever I visit from Thailand I feel it; people are markedly more aggressive. And as the 2011 riots showed, there’s no shortage of real-life violent morons in the city. 

Nil by Mouth is one of the few films to deal realistically with the kind of Londoners for whom a ‘shopping riot’ like this is just a good piece of fun. These are people who spend half their life in the local pub, do a lot of drugs, live on welfare payments and scamming and thieving, and for whom a fist-fight is a regular occurrence. Harry Brown wasn’t a good film, it was just a downer without any purpose, but Nil by Mouth, and Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) are two stunning works about the rough, dangerous, foul-mouthed side of England’s capital that you watch with fascination despite the milieu because the acting and the story-telling are so vivid.

Gary Oldman directed this famously harrowing film, and dedicated it to his father. Ray (Ray Winstone) is the centre of the story, and Val (Kathy Burke) is his long-suffering wife. This time when I watched it I did feel sometimes that the extremes of Ray's behaviour could have been toned down to better effect, just because he’s nearly always brooding or cursing or threatening someone, he’s too obviously a monster, and I think the reality of this kind of person is more deceptive. Wife-beaters like him are usually fine, charming even, 90% of the time. That’s why the wives stay with them, after all; there’s a clearly observable ‘good side’ that they keep on vainly hoping will be their only side. Here Ray seemed to have no charms at all. And sometimes his rants go on too long and are too ‘big’ and shouty, for example in the scene where they go round to Val‘s mother’s house and start kicking in the door and a neighbour sticks his head out to offer a mild rebuke. (I think some inspiration for this type of outburst must have come from characters in Scorsese films like Mean Streets and Raging Bull, and it’s interesting that Winstone ended up working on The Departed). 

Another minor quibble I had is with the third most important character in the story, Val‘s younger brother, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles). It’s an excellent performance but his character is a very unattractive, very pathetic junkie and it’s hard to spend a lot of time with him. I think they should have either had less of him in the movie or developed his story more; when he's not sticking a needle into his arm, the most exciting thing he does is hang out at the laundromat talking with his scummy friends.

Yet to put this in context; this is undoubtedly one of the most profound and most powerful films to come out of Britain in the last 20 years. And the final scene has certainly lost nothing; it’s still heart-breaking. An important theme in the movie is how people - especially abused/abusive people - repeat patterns of behaviour down through the generations. Ray has already talked of the dad he hated, who just sat around the house getting drunk and watching TV and occasionally walloping his mother, and he has no idea that he himself is exactly the same. Now at the very end we see Val going off to visit her father in prison and it makes sense. That, in a way, is why she’s with Ray: he’s the same kind of criminal personality that she grew up with.

And the strange thing is: this prison-visit happened a long, long time ago. One thing cinema can do better than any other medium is play with time. Pulp Fiction and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are two good examples of how that can work. But neither of them contain anything quite as emotionally wrenching as this last scene of Nil by Mouth. After the main narrative has come to its sad conclusion, after we’ve watched nearly two hours of abuse and pain and violent anger within this one family, we’re suddenly transported back to an earlier era when everyone got on well together, everyone found it easy to laugh. Six or seven people are in the kitchen, talking across each other in a happy jumble, and though they’re casually using obscenities in front of a small child, it doesn’t seem to matter, because you’re just relieved to see them all in such a good mood, relaxed and friendly. Then it hits you that this ‘reality’ has long since been lost, and it’s unbearably sad.

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