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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

AUGUST 10, 1998:  It's hard to stand in front of the video rack and select a movie like Nil by Mouth (1997, R). With all those Hollywood shoot-'em-ups, lovey-dovey comedies, and "uplifting" family dramas to choose from, why rent a movie about the horrible lives of marginal people?

Well, maybe because it's a good film—and in my vocabulary, "good film" means it pulls you in, shows you things you wouldn't see otherwise, and stays with you for days afterward. It's grim, yes, and some critics complained that it's not "about" anything, but it has moments of sharp truth that cut close to the bones of real life.

Nil by Mouth is the writing/directing debut of actor Gary Oldman (Sid and Nancy, countless Hollywood villain roles), and it feels like it. At his best, Oldman is a visceral actor who can communicate raw, unchoreographed emotion. His movie does the same. It's about the travails of a working-class London family and the abuses—of drugs, of women, of children—that come with poverty. Nearly plotless, the film ambles from one member of the clan to another until we know them intimately—the junkie son, his depressive sister, her abusive husband, the hardened matriarch. The dense British slang and accents are hard to penetrate at first, but the performances (especially Kathy Burke as the sister, who won last year's Best Actress award at Cannes) are so strong they overcome the barriers. And Oldman is a real director, not just an actor with a camera. He wants to be Scorsese (who doesn't?), and parts of the film feel like a Cockney Mean Streets. But Oldman has no grand ambitions for his characters, no symbolic intent. He wants to show us brutal, complicated life, and for two mostly captivating hours, he does.

In its portraits of domestic violence and self-loathing, Nil by Mouth recalls the antipodean import Once Were Warriors (1994, R). Director Lee Tamahori's film details the hopeless ghetto world of modern Maoris, New Zealand's indigenous people. The smoldering relationship at its core—between proud but submissive Beth (Rena Owen) and her violent husband Jake (Temuera Morrison)—is among the most savage ever put on film. The movie is hard to watch, but it makes the violence mean something by connecting it to the Maoris' loss of tradition and tribe.

Less convincing is another new film, Broken English (1997, NC-17), from the producers of Once Were Warriors. In this case, the violence comes from a family of Croats transplanted to New Zealand. When daughter Nina falls in love with a Maori, her kinsmen react with predictable racial hatred. It's compelling subject matter and there are several good performances, but director Gregor Nicholas often reduces the movie to soap opera (e.g. the overhyped sex scenes).

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