Bull Market

Nil by Mouth
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

From the moment that bellicose Ray bellies up to the bar to order a slew of drinks near the start of Nil by Mouth, you know danger is brewing. This excruciating film follows Ray (Ray Winstone) on an abusive rampage that involves four generations of women: his wife Val (Kathy Burke), their daughter Michelle (Leah Fitzgerald), Val's mother Janet (Laila Morse), and Janet's mother Kath (Edna Doré). The family violence also touches Val's junkie brother, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), who alternates between confusion, affection, and a panicky search for drugs on the streets of South London.

In his bid for auteur status, actor-turned-director Gary Oldman--who launched his film career playing Sid Vicious in Alex Cox's punk classic Sid and Nancy (1986)--injects himself into the venerable tradition of British realism that includes Ken Loach (Ladybird, Ladybird) and Mike Leigh (Naked). But this new kid on the realist block has forsaken politics in favor of a personal approach that some critics have read as psychotherapy, perhaps owing to the publicity around Oldman's autobiographical connection to his film. Thus Nil by Mouth seems to graft a kind of show-and-tell quality onto the style of "kitchen-sink realism," allowing its maker a chance to exorcise his demons.

Of course, Oldman also means to enmesh the viewer in his suffocating world. In order to evoke both frantic motion and immobilization, he combines telephoto close-ups in cramped spaces with jerky, chaotic camerawork. Nil by Mouth takes place almost entirely indoors, and even during the few breaths of fresh air there are no trees or sunlight. The characters amplify the dark effect, with Val quietly enduring her entrapment while Ray seethes and explodes but can't escape either. Even his clothes are too tight. In turn, Ray seeks to make Val's confinement total: After one of many instances of pulverizing her, he screams, "You stay here! You wanna drink, you fuckin' drink here."

Oldman does grant the occasional respite, but these moments are no less haunting in their own way. The harsh dialogue and incessant background clamor so exacerbate the film's claustrophobia that I soon longed for Billy to grab a needle and shoot up--indeed, it's the only thing that brings silence (and bitter relief) to Nil by Mouth. When Michelle releases a red "get-well" balloon for her mum, its soaring escape only compounds the prison they're in. When Val and her grandmother manage to find solace by swaying to a peculiar groove, this restorative scene is abruptly interrupted by shots of Billy fleeing for his life. Every lit cigarette is soothing. The distinction between escape and healing is never clear.

Certainly, Val and her kin find no comfort in conversation. In hospital terminology, "nil by mouth" is an instruction to keep food and water away from patients; in the film's terms, it indicates the characters' inability to communicate. Ray and Val don't touch even once, except when he batters her, and Oldman frequently separates them by glass even when they are conversing. Ray and his mate Mark (Jamie Forman) chatter incessantly about their sexual exploits and drug escapades. Every other word is "cunt." The women communicate through intuition and the occasional touch, but never speak their pain. The most they can do is perform emotional triage for each other.

Oldman's particular shock therapy includes peeling back the layers of learned misogyny. For him, this has as much to do with relationships between men as those between men and women. The leering, tongue-waggling males at a strip show perform more for each other than anyone else. Suffice to say this is no Full Monty. The most disturbing images in Nil by Mouth don't come only in the sick-making moments when Ray beats Val to a pulp, but also when Ray gnaws deep into Billy's nose in a fight over drugs, and again when Ray reveals his self-loathing before substituting the flat for Val's face. By the time this raging bull explains his own father's abuse, there's no forgiveness to spare. Oldman finally ends the film with what may be his harshest blow: "In memory of my father."

Thanks mostly to the performances by Burke and Morse, Oldman's focus on masculinity doesn't edge the women out. Morse is particularly effective at portraying the complexities of mothering, as when she helps Billy get a fix, or when she dignifies Val by pretending to believe the lie that she was struck by a hit-and-run driver. These characters are too complex to fit the stereotype of suffering that Oldman offers, and it's to his credit that he recognizes both their choice and their compulsion. Like a Greek chorus, the soundtrack reinforces the grim ironies of women's stake in patriarchy, including performances of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" ("because he treats me so well") and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," the latter chillingly lip-synched by a bar-full of women.

So how will this depressing, aptly complicated treatment of misogyny and class play in America? Predictably, USA Today has already reduced the film to a pat warning about "the effects of drugs on families." Another critic expressed considerable worry about the effect of Ray's violence on unborn generations but absolutely none about Val. Still, if Nil By Mouth generally resists such simplistic diagnoses, that's because it doesn't lend itself to many conclusions other than one's personal reaction. And whether his film leaves you feeling violent or violated, Oldman has left virtually no way out of his own private hell.

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