Monday, August 18, 2014

In a Glass Cage (Nil by Mouth, 1997)

The film begins on a high.  Intercut with the opening credits, in close-ups, Ray (Ray Winstone) orders drinks at a nightclub bar.  He carries the tray of drinks over to where his wife, Val (Kathy Burke), and mother-in-law (Laila Morse) sit.  Ray spats with Val, but the words are nearly inaudible, drowned out by the club din.  He takes the remainder of the drinks to a table of men on the other side of the club.  Sitting down, Ray listens and contributes to a series of crude anecdotes tossed around in this boy’s club.
DP, Ron Fortunato’s handheld camerawork gives the scene an itchy, throbbing, intimacy, which moves to capture gestures as the men recount stories – hands drawing the narrative, eyes exaggerated for maximum theatrical effect, mouths contorted in laughter. 

So far, Nil By Mouth, the only film by Gary Oldman[1], recalls John Cassavetes’ work, particularly Husbands.  The kineticism and macho-bonding is all here in the first ten minutes.  Shortly thereafter, Nil’s mood changes a darker shade, (and not the existential kind seen in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie).

The revelry and exhilaration leak into the next day and night.  Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), Ray’s brother-in-law, tags along.  The festivities become rambunctious, more rowdy, as the gang moves from an arcade to a strip-joint while taking drugs and an assortment of booze.  Finally, the night ends with a beating; Ray sucker punches a man who, in some way, did him wrong.

Back at home, after the night out, Billy shoots up with some of Ray’s heroin, the dope dealer that he is.  The following morning, Ray looms over Billy, who’s still asleep.  Ray erupts, thrashing Billy, screaming inches away from his face, wanting to know where his supply is.  The pressure that the film has been building explodes. The film’s rhythm quickens to the tension as Ray, this hulking brute of a figure, chomps on Billy’s nose.
Nil by Mouth splits its focus on these two male figures of a working-class London family.  It follows them when separate, and, explosively, when together.  Indeed, the film has what Adrian Martin calls a plateau narrative structure[2] - a slow build to a confrontation of bodies, a gradual decline, and then onto the next confrontation.   Like a vacuum, Billy and Ray’s family get pulled into their problems.  Billy’s mother supports his drug addiction monetarily.  In a drunken paranoia, Ray batters Val, who happens to be pregnant. 

With the domestic violence, Oldman appears to be in Kitchen sink realism territory.  But the film’s aesthetic betrays such characteristics of that type of filmmaking. Along with Cassavetes, Nil by Mouth is a heady cocktail, blending the manic-energy of Alan Clarke’s social dramas and the piss-yellow of Nan Goldin’s photography.

Oldman intermingles the uncomfortable intimacy, seen in the extended opening, with distance.  He balances the near and the far by using glass, which is one of Nil by Mouth’s visual motifs.  In Ray’s cramped apartment, for example, a glass partition separates the living room and the kitchen.  Fortunato often films the characters through either side of the glass.  It is like looking through a microscope slide, observing this family entrapped in their own private hell, which is ready to spill out into the public at any minute.  “Oh, mum.  I just don’t want anyone knowing,” Val says, black and blue after Ray batters her.

Now alone in the kitchen, Ray drinks, ranting to his reflection in a mirror.  The isolation too much for him, Ray obliterates this glass cage, tossing furniture around.  Earlier, we see Ray sitting at the kitchen table, watching a TV set that’s playing in the living room.  On the glass, we see the faint image of the program -- a family gathered around a dinner table, ideal domesticity.

In Billy, there’s an echo of Ray.  He’s distant from his family, yet dragging them down, financially, ethically, with his drug addiction.  As with Ray, visual motifs of entrapment correspond with Billy.  Walking through the hallway of a housing project, he’s seen in front of the vertical bars of a door.  He calls a drug dealer in a phone booth.  With his chums, he haunts a launderette.  We see him milling about the space through the window – the equivalent of the glass partition. 

Haven turns to prison when a knife-wielding man traps Billy and his friend in the launderette.  The next scene, Billy’s in an actual prison cell.  Unlike Ray though, he’s comfortable in his isolation, shooting up a smuggled stash of heroin.  He’s free to annihilate himself without involving his family.

With Billy locked away and Ray making amends with Val, one wonders if this family has achieved stability or if this is merely a temporary stasis for a chain of suffering that’s passed down, from male to male, through generations.

[1]Oldman’s next project seems like the opposite of Nil – a big budget film about Eadweard Muybridge, Flying Horse.
[2] Martin, Adrian. “Driven.” Mesh 18.  2005. Web.

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