"You shouldn't push me."
A brutally frank, unvarnished glimpse into the lives of South London's working class, Nil by Mouth, the 1997 directorial debut of actor Gary Oldman (who remains behind the camera in this film), plays more like a documentary than a fictional film. In fact, this story of an alcoholic, drug-abusing husband, Ray (Ray Winstone), his lowlife friends, and his long-suffering family is based loosely on Oldman's own childhood experiences (the film is dedicated to the memory of his father).
From its opening shot of Ray trying to order a drink in a club, the film is suffused with a sense of barely restrained violence. And as played by bull-necked Winstone, who glowers dangerously even when he's laughing, he's little more than a creature of rage, just waiting for someone to give him an excuse to unleash his frustration and resentment against a world that has conspired to deprive him of any happiness.
As might be expected from an actor-turned-director, Nil by Mouth is more of a character study than a plot-heavy thriller. In fact, there really is no plot as such; Nil by Mouth simply exists, drifting into the frame, spending a couple of hours with its characters, and just as dispassionately fading out. There's no sense of a heavy hand shoving a message at the viewer, no pedantic morality tale to give form to our impressions. Characters curse, fight, and, in one particularly horrifying instance of domestic violence, nearly kill each other, but the acts of violence are given little context or resolution.
This lack of structure could be seen as a flaw; but as part of Oldman's vision, it works as a kind of unadorned, unembellished honesty. Even if it's not as satisfying as the kind of stories we're used to, it feels true to the portrait Oldman is trying to create. What he is seeking on behalf of his tortured, psychologically scarred characters is not forgiveness or condemnation, but understanding.
The acting, by Winstone, Kathy Burke (as Ray's wife Val), and "Laila Morse" (Oldman's sister, appearing here under a pseudonym), is precise and utterly convincing. Burke especially gives an amazing, heartbreaking performance (which won the 1997 Best Actress award at Cannes and the 1998 British Independent Film Awards) as a woman trapped in a cycle of violence and humiliation.
This Columbia TriStar DVD is a barebones catalog release, so the only extras are a set of theatrical trailers for Nil by Mouth and other Columbia catalog titles. English subtitles are provided, and will prove useful to anyone who finds the film's South London accents difficult to make out. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is so-so, displaying numerous print defects, but in this case the gritty nature of the film makes a virtue out of this weakness, the washed-out, ragged quality lending the film a layer of verité grit. Audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround, and is actually quite effective in scenes utilizing ambient sounds. Otherwise, the sound is clear and is more than adequate for this dialogue-heavy film.
Nil by Mouth isn't easy viewing, and Oldman refuses to let his audience off the hook with a simplistic "good guy, bad guy" storyline. For those viewers who can endure its uncompromisingly bleak vision, this is a film with much to offer.
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