In a career-making performance, newcomer David Thewlis stars as Johnny, hogging the foreground of nearly every scene in this movie about Britishers whose loneliness and fear inhibits them from making human connection. Our first impression of Johnny is fairly representative of his interpersonal relations. There he is, in a Manchester alley pinning a woman to the wall in an unimaginably brutal act of caveman sex (which she unsuccessfully tries to repel). Then he bolts. The rhythms of his life - and his movie - are fight and flight.
Once he steals a car and drives to London with the vague aim of reconnecting with his Manchester girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp), Johnny enjoys a series of character-defining chance encounters. With one exception, he forces his attentions on women who are resistant, resists women who are pliant (like Louise), holds forth to listeners who can't keep pace with his brilliant monologues and evades dialogues with those who can keep up with him. However bright he is, he doesn't figure out that if you only talk to people who don't get the drift of what you're saying, you guarantee that you are
misunderstood. (Or does this allow Johnny to feel superior to his listeners as he feels superior to the sex objects he brutalizes?) Once he dominates them, Johnny bolts.
To no one in particular Johnny boasts, "I've got an infinite number of places to go, but where to stay?" His urgent existential question propels him through what sometimes looks like the intestines of London, where he meets so many people who are in extremis that Johnny, despite his bile, scruffy mustache and unwashed trousers, begins to resemble something like a solid citizen.
Interspersed with Johnny's unvaliant conquest of London is the contrasting story of another case of sadistic masculinism, that of a posh man named Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), whose crooked path crosses Johnny's. Jeremy's sadistic behavior toward women makes Johnny's look gentle.
Does Leigh include such crazies to make Johnny look sane? Or are the characters of Naked, Johnny included, ex-souls - forsaken by social system and God - who are now zombies? Because Leigh creates his screenplays during his actors' protracted improvisations, it's also worth asking whether Naked took its shape and momentum from actors essaying characters each struggling for control. All these interpretations are possible.
But as to what this screed finally means, well, only at the end of the film do we recognize this place where Johnny seems doomed to stagger and retrace his steps in perpetuity. It is limbo.
NAKED * * *
Produced by Simon Channing-Williams, written and directed by Mike Leigh, photography by Dick Pope, music by Andrew Dickson, distributed by Fine Line Features.
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
Johnny - David Thewlis
Louise - Lesley Sharp
Sophie - Katrin Cartlidge
Jeremy/Sebastian - Greg Cruttwell
Brian - Peter Wight
Parent's guide: No rating (profanity, nudity, sex, violence, sexual violence)
Showing at: Ritz at the Bourse