Nil by Mouth - *

For his directoral debut, Gary Oldman chose a highly personal family drama about a violent, alcoholic husband and father, and the various lives he affects. But while the characters, places and events may have special meaning to the writer-director, the audience is left in the dark.

The center of this tale is the abusive Raymond (Ray Winstone), and the film focuses on him and the people who orbit around him. He spends his days hanging out with his friends at pubs and girlie bars. Then, he returns home to his pregnant wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke) and their five-year-old daughter.

Raymond demonstrates his violent tendencies (and his paranoid delusions) early on when he accuses Valerie’s brother, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), of stealing. Raymond then proceed to beat (and bite) him to a bloody wreck. But these are the least of Billy’s problems. Billy is a heroin addict on the downturn, and it doesn’t seem that he’ll last much longer.

Billy and Valerie’s mother, Janet (Laila Morse), is Raymond’s nemesis. She disapproves of him (and he of her), but is powerless to do anything about it. She merely struggles on, hoping her children will survive their respective torments.

If this description seems bleak, I haven’t told the half of it. This is not a cheery movie, and most of the time it’s downright depressing. While at times it is interesting to watch to see just what makes Raymond tick, and why no one ever simply calls the cops on him, in the end, it’s not quite worth it.

There are too many scenes which randomly dot the picture with little or no purpose. Take for example the extended sequence where one of Billy’s scuzzy friends defends a stray puppy. The film is filled with these “character moments” that never really achieve anything. Granted, there are a few genuinely powerful (and sickening) moments in the film, but their expression seems to be more of a catharsis for the creator than us.

The actors do a fine job, particularly in the central roles. The good thing about an actor turned writer is that Oldman knows how to write good scenes, and the actors in Nil By Mouth have some meat they can tear into.

The bad thing about an actor turned director is that there’s no one to restrain Oldman from making poor choices. A good character drama should mean something to those involved in making the film and the audience. Oldman got it about half right.

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