Nil by Mouth (United Kingdom, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There is a scene in Nil by Mouth, actor Gary Oldman's directorial debut, that is excruciatingly difficult to watch. It's not especially graphic, since the gruesome details take place out of frame, but anyone with an imagination can conjure up an image to chill the blood. The sequence depicts a particularly brutal instance of spousal abuse, and is perhaps only recently rivaled in intensity by a similar occurrence in Once Were Warriors. One might think that movie-goers, inured to explicit on-screen violence, would not flinch at what Oldman presents, but there's a major difference between the decapitations and eviscerations of a Starship Troopers and the savageness of Nil by Mouth – the former plays like a comic book come to life; the latter is shockingly real.

Oldman has based this bleak, gritty tale on his memories of growing up in the economically deprived projects of South London. Only Oldman knows how much of the story is true and how much is made up, but there's an eerie sense of verisimilitude about nearly every scene in the film, and the dialogue couldn't be more exact. This is an uncompromising drama – it doesn't shrink from presenting the horror of the situation, nor does it take the easy path of demonizing the abuser and deifying the victim. And there's no facile conclusion that wraps everything into a neat package. Like life, Nil by Mouth is messy and open-ended.

From the beginning, it's clear that three elements are going to be critical to the events that transpire during Nil by Mouth: alcohol, drugs, and poverty. They are facts of life in contemporary South London, where the movie is set. Our first glimpse of the main character, Raymond (Ray Winstone, in a stunningly forceful performance), is in a pub where he and some friends are sitting around drinking lager and trading profane stories. Oldman allows the film to develop slowly, giving us a feel for Ray and his buddies. They are all victims of society, but do the best they can to get by, and use alcohol to dull the pain of not having any real purpose in life. It's a far cry from the more upbeat picture painted by The Full Monty.

Ray is a family man. He has a wife, Valerie (a heartwrenching Kathy Burke, who won the Best Actress prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival), and a young daughter. But all is not well under his roof. When he has had a few pints, Ray is prone to explosive exhibits of violence. With little or no provocation, he will lash out at anyone in range. His favorite target is his wife's drug- addicted brother, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), who lives with Ray's family. When Billy isn't around, there are other possibilities, including his wife. And, although Ray never harms his daughter physically, there is little doubt that his behavior leaves deep psychological scars (witness the shot of the little girl sitting alone on the staircase above the room where her father has just battered her mother).

Oldman does an excellent job of bringing the audience into a world where despair and hopelessness are the norm. Nil by Mouth does not sympathize with Ray, but it forces us to understand him. He is the product of a dysfunctional family and the son of a man who was incapable of expressing affection (the film's title refers to this). He loves his wife and daughter, but, like too many men under the influence of alcohol, he cannot control himself, and the most base impulses of his nature emerge with devastating consequences. The film's treatment of Valerie is equally well- rounded and believable. The director shows her pain, desperation, and humiliation, as well as her growing determination to free herself from the cycle of violence that threatens her safety.

From time-to-time, the movie becomes a little unfocused. In attempting to flesh out the world surrounding Ray and Valerie, Oldman occasionally wanders far afield. A little too much time is spent developing Billy's character, and one particular subplot involving Billy, his friends, and their attempts to procure drugs, is presented in a sketchy, haphazard manner. Other than that, however, Nil by Mouth is extremely strong, and, at times, shattering. Oldman's direction is sure and the performances he culls from a talented cast are consistently remarkable.

Nil by Mouth is as powerful as it is uncomfortable, and those in search of a pleasant movie-going experience would be best served looking elsewhere. However, for anyone who isn't bothered by the thought of experiencing a shock to the system, this film is not to be missed. It approaches a serious social issue in the best, most dramatically true manner. Instead of resorting to lugubrious sermons or prettying things up Hollywood-style, it tells a simple, psychologically- exact tale that illustrates the depth and breadth of pain caused by domestic abuse. Nil by Mouth leaves an impression that is hard to shake off, and that's the mark of an top-notch film.

Nil by Mouth (United Kingdom, 1997)

Director: Gary Oldman
Cast: Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse, Edna Dore, Jamie Forman
Screenplay: Gary Oldman
Cinematography: Ron Fortunato
Music: Eric Clapton
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1