NIL BY MOUTH directed by Gary Oldman; Sony Pictures, 1998

I’ve generally steered away from the cinema ever since Jody Foster broke my heart with the putrescent Contact, and even when I did attend somewhat regularly, I didn’t pay much attention to Gary Oldman, aside from noting that he was one of the doofs in that vampire movie. So, count me surprised to find his very self credited as both author and director of one of the most brittle, tense, and subtly brilliant films to flicker across my Sony in many moons.

Nil By Mouth focuses upon the claustrophobically tiny world of a wildly dysfunctional family in downscale east London whose individual members are busily spiraling downwards into oblivion in their own special, individual ways. The enormously convincing Kathy Burke plays the battered, trapped wife of a psychopathic pub thug (Ray Winstone); a junkie brother, a noble-but-impotent mother, and miscellaneous sisters, in-laws, and acquaintances in the ghastly grey housing “estates” they call home feed upon each other as the world outside feeds upon them. They drink. They fight. They get arrested. They shoot up. They’re wounded and recover, only to be wounded again. Nothing changes, and never will, and in the end, that’s the bitter point of Nil. But amidst the misery and pain and brutality, there’s the occasional song, the occasional joke, the occasional flicker of humanity from behind dead eyes that entices each to remain a part of the doomed familial juggernaut, a ghastly mortar that binds them inextricably to each other. The only semblance of love, however brief and fleeting it is, that they can ever hope to know—the real drug, the source of their addiction.

Nil is a cinematic hardass slice of life spiritually akin to Frank McCourt’s jarring Angela’s Ashes, a voyeur’s-eye view into private worlds of quiet desperation. In the end, it’s an unrelentingly bleak, bitter little film, a surefire Prozac antidote capable of casting a pall over a roomful of lotto winners. The light directorial touch, the carefully-observant script, and the killer ensemble cast conspire to draw you fully into Nil’s sick little world, until you just about feel you’re part of the family. Powerful stuff. Oldman’s got my attention now.

-David B. Livingstone


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