A powerfully disturbing look at life in a South London working class neighborhood, this a bleak film that's hard to sit through. Written and directed by actor Gary Oldman ("Air Force One," "The Fifth Element"), the work is reportedly based on his memories of growing up in a South London family. If that's true, and if he went through what occurs on screen -- or something similar -- then that much more credit should go to him for becoming a success despite the atrocities and depressed behavior to which he was exposed. It may also describe some of the characters he chooses to play and the level of intensity he often projects into them.
By shooting in a hand-held, documentary style, Oldman gives the film even more of a disturbing twist. Since it looks and feels like a documentary -- which we usually associate with being a slice of "reality" -- the film is very uncomfortable to watch. The camera work is often shaky, and vehicles and other objects often block our view of what's happening. One gets the feeling that what we're seeing is real, and the fact that the film is filled with brutally grim material doesn't help that matter.
Nearly everything is bleak, and there seems to be little hope for these people's lives, although some positive growth finally occurs toward the end. Oldman has succeeded in creating his desired effect, but it's questionable how many viewers will think that's a good thing. Beyond the domestic abuse, drug use and other material, the rampant profanity -- that roughly averages out to about one use of the "f" word every twenty seconds for more than two hours -- will also put off many viewers.
The fact that most audiences won't recognize any of the cast members further strengthens the documentary feel, thus heightening the effect that we're watching real strangers. The performances are very strong and captivating, but the problem lies in the fact that few of the characters are likeable. While that adds to the uncomfortable feeling that permeates the film, it also only "helps" in making the feature nearly unbearable to sit through.
Obviously one roots for Valerie, the abused and pregnant wife. Like a shell-shocked war victim, she passively accepts her position in life. As portrayed by Kathy Burke (from the BBC's "Absolutely Fabulous"), Valerie doesn't care anymore and drinks and smokes despite being pregnant. One also gets the impression that her five-year-old daughter -- who we often see sitting on the fringes and absorbing the abusive behavior -- will probably grow up just like her mom in an endless cycle of abuse and despair.
The terror behind all of this is Raymond, the alcoholic, drug using, abusive husband. Actor Ray Winstone (another British TV and theatrical performer) has created such a villainous monster that his character should go down in the annals of filmdom as one of the cruelest creations to hit the silver screen in quite some time. Unlike similar Hollywood portrayals that are often slickly conceived, this guy is raw, pure evil, and Winstone plays him so convincingly that you hope that he's not that way in real life. Since he's most likely not, one then hopes that after seeing this film, people won't flee if they happen to see him. A poster boy for the deluded people out there who defend their actions by saying, "I do it because I love you," Raymond self-destructs as the story progresses. Winstone's performance is strong and mesmerizing, but very ugly.
The other part of the story deals with Billy, also played effectively by Charlie Creed-Miles ("The Fifth Element"). A down and out junkie, he's often involved in threatening and/or violent altercations. Much like Raymond, we know this guy will never get better, and it's depressing to see these characters continuing down their paths of self-destruction. Perhaps the hardest to watch, however, is Laila Morse as the mother who tries to take care of her dysfunctional kids. Morse delivers a fine performance, and it's surprising to learn that this is her first acting role. She does a perfect job at creating the despondent mother who still wants to help her kids, but realizes it's a losing battle. The scene where she watches Billy "shoot up" is moving, as are the moments where she'll do anything to protect her daughter, much like a wild animal will if she feels threatened. As she watches her son, her eyes fill with both fascination and horror -- she can't believe what she's seeing, but she can't help but continue to stare.
That's pretty much the way you'll watch this film too. Beyond the atrocities that occur, the film is also difficult to watch due to the thick accents and the often muddled delivery of dialogue. Like many other films that showcase actors speaking English with thick, localized accents, it takes a while to get accustomed to what the characters are saying. That only adds yet another frustrating level to the film, and the fact that many of the verbal exchanges come in the form of yelling and screaming matches doesn't help either.
Certainly not a happy or uplifting tale, this is a disturbing look at life most of us would rather not see, and many will probably feel the same way about this movie. Perhaps making this film was cathartic for Oldman -- cleansing the demons of his past -- but I doubt many moviegoers will want to watch or be part of the process. Bleak and disturbing, and featuring some strong, but unlikeable performances, this is a decent directorial debut for Oldman. Let's just hope next time he picks a more likeable and pleasant subject. We give "Nil By Mouth" a 4 out of 10 simply because its raw ugliness nearly makes it unbearable to watch.