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Nil by Mouth

Rarely does an actor who is taking his first stab at writing and directing earn the sort of attention that was awarded to Gary Oldman when his stark and depressing Nil by Mouth debuted at Cannes in 1997 (next to The Fifth Element, which must have made for an interesting double bill). With language that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, enough domestic violence to harrow the most desensitized viewer, and a brutal performance by Ray Winstone that makes one wonder why he's not seen more Stateside, Nil by Mouth is not for the weak of stomach. Ray (Winstone) is a two-bit criminal making his way through life by stealing electronics and selling them on the street. A violent drunkard, he lives with his pregnant wife Valerie (Kathy Burke), their five-year-old daughter, and — more often than he'd like — his brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles). Billy is a heroin addict, and when Ray thinks he's stolen some of his gear, he beats him and kicks him out for the last time. Forced to beg for his next fix, Billy wanders the streets of South London while his family searches for him. It's when Ray catches Valerie playing pool with a guy in a bar that things turn from dark to dreadful, and what started as a sad family melodrama becomes downright painful to watch. Familial dramas are hardly new, but rarely does a story revolve around a group of people that seem to genuinely hate each other. There are no tender moments between Ray, Valerie, and Billy, who constantly belittle, berate, and beat each other, all by externalizing their own self-loathing tendencies. One exception comes from Ray — not long after he's past redemption, he speaks about his father, and (whether he realizes it or not) himself. As is typical with most gritty dramas, it's hard to sympathize with self-destructive characters. However, Valerie isn't a cowering victim, and she's not afraid to show some spine against her madman of a husband (Kathy Burke took Best Actress at Cannes for her performance here). Nil By Mouth may be one of the most profane films ever made — if not for the subtitles, there are good stretches of dialogue where only the cursing sticks out as discernible from the South London slang. Of course, when a picture is dialogue-heavy (either by speechmaking or recanting old stories), it can be a bit bothersome. Oldman's tale is semi-autobiographical, ranging from his tough London upbringing to his bout with alcoholism. It would seem, as he hasn't returned to either writing or directing since, that he had a story to tell and that was that. That's too bad — it would be nice to see the actor explore his behind-the-camera potential even further. Columbia TriStar presents Nil By Mouth in a good anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. A commentary from Oldman would have been a welcome addition, but all that's on board is a trailer. Keep-case.
—Scott Anderson

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