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Gloom With a View

[whitespace] Nil by Mouth
Light in the Middle of the Tunnel: Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) marches through a hellish London in Gary Oldman's 'Nil by Mouth.'

Rage boils over in Gary Oldman's 'Nil by Mouth'

By Richard von Busack

RAY (RAY WINSTONE), the antihero of Gary Oldman's directoral debut, Nil by Mouth, is subject to severe mood swings. Ray can be an affable guy, but when someone accidentally nudges him at a bar, he fumes over the perceived insult. Watching Ray glare at a man who not only innocently brushed against him but also apologized, we can't be sure that a fight is not about to break out right now.

By the end of the film, we've seen Ray blow up into a fury. During the course of Nil by Mouth, he turns his violence on his wife, Valery (Kathy Burke), her mother, Kath (Edna Doré, the granny from High Hopes), and his needle-using brother-in-law, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles).

Seeing their panic, their inability to defend themselves from this Cockney barbarian, is to know what it's like to be cornered by a rageball. The center of the film is a scene in which Ray kicks his pregnant wife's face out of shape. When we join Valery in the hospital later, her makeup is worse than in the worst monster movie, because we know there's a human being behind that face. Nil by Mouth dares viewers to walk out, and I suspect there will be plenty eager to take that dare.

First-time director Oldman filmed Nil by Mouth in impressionist swatches, and the film stock, blown up from 16mm, adds to the narrative fuzziness. Luc Besson produced, which means that there was a reward for Oldman's time-clock punching in Besson's The Fifth Element.

Oldman has let it be known that the movie is semiautobiographical (it's dedicated to his father). If half of the squalor in this film is true to life, then Oldman deserves complete respect for surviving a background as rough as the ones, say, Nick Nolte or Ava Gardner overcame.

Nil by Mouth is powerful, but the power is shapeless, and if critics are comparing it favorably to the films of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, two other directors who chart the grim side of London life, it's because of the nonpartisan rawness. Oldman doesn't want to suggest causes, only effects. To apolitical viewers, that's the superior approach.

Oldman hurls the debris that he lived with against the screen, and when the squalor doesn't come to a point, he borrows an epiphany. Raging Bull came out of nowhere, and Nil by Mouth came out of Raging Bull. It's a La Motta scene: Ray, alone after his vicious attack, turns his sorrow and fury on himself and the furniture.

The derivative quality is seen in other homages to Cassavetes and to Dennis Hopper's beautiful scene in Apocalypse Now. Beautiful, because there's polish and skill in Hopper's hurt, frenzied monologue about his idol, Col. Kurtz ("Are they gonna call him a kind man? A wise man?") There was beauty, too, to De Niro's La Motta, and Raging Bull was enjoyable, something you couldn't call Nil by Mouth.

I SUSPECT that most Americans will not be able to tell what the hell is going on, what with the thick accents and thicker slang (plus the characters slur their words when they're drunk, and they're almost always drunk). Nil by Mouth has only one exhilarating moment--when Valery finally stands up for herself.

Oldman's claustrophobic views of the housing projects in South London are haunting: the metal doors and hallways, the neighborhood, so thoroughly buggered and scragged and littered, the almost tangible beer stink of the pubs. Suffusing it all is the gloomy ocher light of the hell city. (The rain never stops; you won't escape El Niño in this theater.)

Oldman has captured the atmosphere of this dead end of English life, and a little something of the language. England's Viz Comics, with seriocomic characters like the wife-beating Cockney Wanker (the Scorsese version of Andy Capp) and the hard-core drunk 8-Ace, exports the sometimes startlingly pungent slang of the UK; except in Viz, I've never heard of a woman so ugly that she had a face "like a bulldog licking piss off of a nettle."

Sometimes Nil by Mouth has that kind of pungency, but it's half heard, and I think that I learned more about London from Viz. Oldman aims mainly to smack his audience. At the risk of grossly overstating a case, the difference between a director and an actor is that a director knows when enough is enough.

Nil by Mouth (R; 128 min.), directed and written by Gary Oldman, photographed by Ron Fortunato and starring Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke.

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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