Nil By Mouth (1997)

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Nil By Mouth is a non-linear insight into a miserable cycle of violence, abuse and addiction.

Don’t be mistaken, this is not another piece of British scuzzploitation, far from it. Although it appears comparable on face value, it certainly isn’t within the lowly sphere of Rise of the Footsoldier or The Football Factory.

The film concentrates on Ray (Ray Winstone), his wife Valerie (Kathy Burke), mother-in-law Janet (Laila Morse), brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) and best friend Mark (Jamie Foreman). Winstone and Burke are both tremendous, they share scenes – one in particular – of harrowing intensity. Ray is a man consumed with rage and jealousy, emotions that have most likely followed him throughout his sorry existence. To summarise the film’s premise/narrative, it is essentially a depiction of the causes and consequences of his latest brutal outburst. Winstone’s  performance is a piece of realist brilliance; some may say he’s one-dimensional, but he really is a rather good actor. Nil By Mouth’s portrait of a deeply violent, self-destructive man is one of the most frightening and brutal I’ve ever seen, more so than even Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980).

In a film of hapless victims, Ray’s wife Valerie suffers to the greatest extent. Burke portrays a woman completely servile to her husband, she unfortunately enables his tyranny by interminably tolerating his wayward, selfish behaviour.  It is Kathy Burke’s moments that are the most moving, chiefly a scene where she desperately tells a white-lie – it’s genuinely upsetting.

Another interesting character is Mark. Foreman’s character is a vapid parasite, a little abettor of a man who’s codependent on Ray and his tempestuous emotions.

The dialogue of Gary Oldman’s script has ample profanity, and I really mean ample, with a combination of around 80 c*nts and 428 f*cks, it’s the most profane film ever made. Amongst all the cockney bellowing however are monologues of real poignancy, most notably one delivered by Winstone in which he speaks of his awful, putrid father, reminding the viewer that the misery they’ve witnessed is a toxic generational cycle that’s largely inescapable.

One criticism of Oldman’s script/narrative is that it is a trifle convoluted at 128 minutes, there are a few scenes that contribute little or nothing to the film, including an annoying Apocalypse Now re-enactment and an annoying shouty scene in a dry cleaners (both scenes feature this repellent little tattooed man with a grating hoarse voice.)

The film is rightfully spared of romanticism, it’s completely devoid of poetic licence and elaborate narrative arcs, what you see is pure, candid realism. Ironically, the film isn’t pure at all, it’s gritty and unrestrained in its depiction of violence and vulgarity; one moment being particularly horrifying. To criticise the film for being ‘unfocused’ is missing the point. To me, it was an almost non-linear insight into the human condition, a film woven from the personal experiences of Gary Oldman and delivered with the utmost conviction from Burke, Winstone and indeed the whole cast.

85%

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

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A somewhat idealised account of alcoholism, but still a thoroughly downbeat one.

Don’t get me wrong, this film is thoroughly downbeat, however I feel alcoholism is still somewhat sugar coated. The likelihood of Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) finding a woman as attractive and utterly devoted as Sera (Elizabeth Shue) is slim. It’s possible of course, their bond is understandable; they’re both people in grave need of care, one being a severe addict and the other being a victim on the fringe of society. Also, the crucial element that makes the relationship and indeed the film work is its platonicism.

Nevertheless, I thought that ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is a somewhat idealised account of dire alcoholism. This really struck me in an erotically charged scene in which the pair kiss and caress each other with the help of a large bottle of liquor – it’s an image that would exist merely in the dreams of most addicts. However, the engaging central romance certainly beats 2 hours of a more ordinary dive into alcoholism, which would be a film of roughly two sets: a pub and a bedroom stained with urine, excrement, blood and vomit.

A film of this nature depends on a good central performance, and it gets one. Cage is depressingly real and effective as Ben. I am a fan of many of Cage’s unhinged roles, however ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is one the films that proves that when he moderates his idiosyncratic lunacy, he can produce genuinely good, measured performances.

The film is scored with smooth, melancholic jazz tracks and the narrative is constructed by a tautly composed prologue which gives a brief insight into Ben’s life before he left for Las Vegas. This includes a brilliant scene of Ben ridding himself of his personal and professional existence to the sound of Michael McDonald’s energetic ‘Lonely Teardrops’. It’s a scene of mixed emotions, although he is condemning himself, it is also an act of liberation. Not much detail is given about his life in the prologue, however it is clear that he was a popular and successful family man. When he is fired, his boss says with a touching sincerity ‘we enjoyed having you around here, but you know how it is’, giving him a cheque which Ben describes as ‘too generous’. This depth given to Cage’s character makes his decline all the more tragic.

‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is dark, seedy and tragic. Recommended.

80%