Zero-level Encounter in Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’
September 12, 2010 § 3 Comments
To be both a nihilist and a follower of prophecy is to embody a very rare species of contradiction which very few characters in the past—Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov—have been able to properly contain. David Thewlis’s startling portrayal of Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) is one of these singular characters. Midway through the film, Johnny is taken aback at the claim that he does not believe in God and indignantly replies, “of course I believe in God!” This comes from the same man who, in the initial shot of film, is shown to be either raping or abusing a prostitute and, soon after, steals a car to avoid getting a beating from the prostitute’s friends.
Strikingly immediate and unforgettable, Johnny is vulgar, cold, and sexually violent; he is also extremely intelligent and well-read—at one point he even claims to have been a doctor. As we follow this forgotten-man poet around the underbelly of London, we eventually discover the tragic consistency and justification behind his actions. He is not, as in the case of the yuppie landlord from hell, a simple hedonist. Quite simply, Johnny is the only true portrait of passionate apocalyptism.
A key facet of Naked‘s otherwise single-stranded narrative is the rather unexpected intercutting between Thewlis’s Johnny and Greg Cruttwell’s Jeremy, the sadistic and apparently wealthy landlord who comes to stay at Louise’s—Johnny’s ex-girlfriend’s—house. Jeremy can best be understood as a spiritual predecessor to Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000). Though quite a step before a murderous psychopath, he displays the same striking, upper-class good looks, unsettling self-confidence, and penchant for sexual abuse as Bateman. He is also the most frightening figure in Naked and a clear foil for Johnny.
Leigh’s decision to intercut the two figures is initially somewhat baffling and seems to suggest an almost artificial sympathetic device or the beginnings of a multi-lead portraiture of modern nihilism. Naked does not devolve equally between the two however, solidly maintaining the focus on Johnny. By the final third of the film—it can hardly be called an act—Jeremy and Johnny meet at Louise’s apartment but never quite exchange any meaningful words as Johnny’s post-beating paroxysm has rendered him unintelligible. In the end, the two never really interact, and their proximity is rendered as purely incidental. Most likely, the reason for Leigh’s inclusion of Jeremy’s back-story against Johnny’s is for that of a dual examination into either’s distinguishing values through the zero-level space of the common environment being Louise’s house.
One of the more memorable images of the film that lends credence to this idea of a zero-level singularity is a haunting wide-shot of Louise’s house from across the street corner at which it is situated. The composition places a seated Johnny near the entrance on the left side of the house while Louise’s roommate Sophie approaches nonchalantly from the right side. Like a Gigerian bowsprit, a prickly tree extents from behind a brick wall surrounding the house. Throughout Naked, characters enter from the left direction but leave only into the right. After his initial desertion of Louise’s house and a midnight odyssey through London, Johnny supposedly returns from the left direction—the direction he took when he first left. Brutalized and near-unconsciousness, he clearly demonstrates the difficulty in this notion of journeying back from the netherworld, however metaphorical or literal this world ultimately ends up being in relation to everyday life. After being raped by Jeremy and ignored by Johnny, Sophie leaves much like Johnny into the left direction. It is not hard to imagine that her destiny is already written into this physical path. In other words, Louise’s house is an existential convergence point, and the roads leading to and away from it paths into light and dark. This is what makes the final shot of Johnny taking the yet unseen third road so meaningful. It is, in the mode of Frost, “the one less traveled by”.
This is the truth of Frost through Leigh’s final characterization of Johnny. It is not some sentimental notion of hopeful individualism or, for that matter, the poem’s ironic reversal. What is understood at the end of the film is not the nature of Johnny’s future but its desperate fatality. He only takes the road not taken because he has already taken all the others. What more appropriate internal dialogue could possibly be flying through Johnny’s battered mind in Naked’s final shot than “I doubted if I should ever come back”?