Near the end of the mayhem, Ray (Ray Winstone), the furious, clueless, drunken South London bully at the heart of Nil by Mouth (Sony Pictures Classics), explains the title in an intense monologue to a mate. When his own furious, clueless dad lay dying, Ray was puzzled by the sign above the hospital bed: “Nil by mouth” meant that the patient was only to be fed intravenously. But to the son, the phrase also summed up all the love the father withheld — “not one kiss, not one cuddle” he declares bitterly in a rare moment of self-awareness, not one declaration of affection from the old man’s lips.
Ray inevitably inflicts the same damage on his family in this unrelentingly gloomy domestic drama, a passionate first effort as writer-director from actor Gary Oldman. Ray viciously beats his pregnant wife (Absolutely Fabulous’ Kathy Burke, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes last year for her extraordinary performance here); he kicks his pathetic, drug-addicted brother-in-law out of the house; he terrorizes his young daughter, his mother-in-law, his grandmother-in-law; he boozes, scams, and destroys. Still, Oldman insists, this is family, nothing more or less. And the movie observes this sorry lot with documentary-style dispassion, unconcerned about drawing larger lessons from the misery, free of hectoring, not giving a fig about tugging at any bleedin’ heartstrings. (An original score by Eric Clapton flashes no emotional cues; only covers of the songs “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” telegraph a message.)
With cinematographer Ron Fortunato swinging his camera like a lasso, rounding up scenes of family dysfunction that feel almost improvised in their careful scruffiness (and torrential vulgarity — these bruisers utter “c—” the way other folks say “please”), Oldman goes after a Mike Leigh- Ken Loach kind of low-downness, a slice of crappy working-class life that’s also a chance to slice open his own vein and let hot blood therapeutically flow. (The filmmaker, who has said the story is rooted in autobiography, dedicates the movie to his father.) Light scenes — three generations of women laughing in a pub, for instance — carry the same weight as shocking ones, such as grandmum sitting in a car in the rain while her grandson shoots up in the backseat with junk he’s bought with her money.
The effect is startling, the actors are superb — but, in nagging ways, the whole is unsatisfying. How did this family get to such a crisis state? What holds them together? Is such violence really as matter-of-fact as Oldman suggests? In his pursuit of emotional immediacy at the expense of context, the filmmaker is like a man who starts a fire because his magnifying glass has turned light into heat; suddenly the place is burning up, but he’s been peering at such close range, he doesn’t know where he is in the big picture. B