Jolly Good Thursdays – Nil By Mouth

Nil By Mouth (1997, dir. Gary Oldman)
Starring Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse

I didn’t plan it this way, but Nil By Mouth is the perfect co-feature for yesterday’s Harry Brown. Both films take place in the government funded estate housing and focus on some of the harsh and brutal realities of life there. While Brown goes for a more Death Wish, hyper-violent tone, Nil By Mouth is a documentary-like look at the people Harry so eagerly murders. The film’s violence is not constant but comes in explosive and jolting moments. Every thing orbits around a single act of violence that takes place in the middle of the picture.

Ray (Winstone) is an ox, a violent brute of a man who is having his second child with Valerie (Burke). He maintains a disinterested relationship with her, going out at night with his mates, ingesting all sorts of drugs, drinking copious amounts of booze, and soliciting women at seedy strip clubs. When Valerie stays out to play pool with friends, Ray explodes. Also living in this war zone is Billy (Creed-Miles), Valerie’s brother and Janet (Morse), Valerie’s mother. Billy is a heroin addict who is constantly borrowing money from his mom and sleeping on a roulette wheel of couches. Janet is a helpless figure, standing back and watching her children’s lives decay and, in Billy’s case, driving him to drug dealers’ houses so he can score.

The most obvious element that carries the film is Ray Winstone. I’ve seen Winstone in films like Sexy Beast and The Proposition and in both of those he plays more of the simmering, muted type. Here he is like a British Jake Lamotta, exploding but never in a showy way, more of a man who has never seen men react anyway other than with violence. There’s a moment in the film when he has a conversation with his best mate Mark and talks about how unloving his father was. This monologue lays it out on the table that these men exist in a cycle of brutality. Why should we expect them to know how to show affection or control their rage when they have never seen a man do so, and when they live in a world where you prove yourself through the violence you inflict on others.

Not to be overshadowed is Kathy Burke as Valerie. Burke knows how to tap into the working class up bringing of her character. Valerie knows that her safety is dependent on Ray’s presence. She overlooks his nightly outings and has a pretty strong suspicion he cheats on her with other women. Their relationship has come to the point where she simply doesn’t care. She is pregnant with their second child and states that she wanted to have another child, but didn’t want to find a different father. There’s no love for Ray, he’s just there. And Ray is with her so he has an anchor point to return to at the end of the night.

The film is soaked in profanity, but that is an accurate depiction of this world and the natural grammar of the place. I was reminded of Mike Leigh’s films about the English working class and how often they are cited as “brutally true to life”. They really have nothing on the grim reality of Oldman’s directorial debut. It’s not an easy film to watch. The accents are thick and require the American viewer to play close attention, and the subject matter is not pretty. However, we have to see the full view of these people so that we don’t slip into the Harry Brown mentality.


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