The Distracted Critic Looks at NOTHING (2003)
Movie Review by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic
Vincenzo Natali, director of SPLICE (2009), began his career more than a decade ago trying to put together what he calls an “informal trilogy of minimalist films.” The first of these is the excellent CUBE (1997). NOTHING (2003) is the second. All I knew about the film was that it featured two misfits who had such problems with society they wished it all away.
The set up is actually more brilliant than that. Dave is a self-centered loser, doing nothing without first identifying what he’ll get out of it. Andrew is afraid of the whole world, hiding in his house with the shades drawn and making money as an online travel agent. They were childhood friends, and for a number of years Dave has lived with and cared for Andrew. All this is told with voice-over and some amusing cartoon work. When the movie narrative begins, Dave announces that he’s moving in with his girlfriend. The way he says “good-bye” lets you know that he has absolutely no intention whatever of returning to look after Andrew’s well-being. Dave won’t even take the trash to the curb for him, leaving Andrew to fend for himself. For the first time in years, Andrew walks outside. He promptly has a panic attack, in the midst of which he discovers he’s locked himself out of the house.
Dave soon discovers that he’s in seriously deep trouble at work. For some reason they think he embezzled thousands of dollars. After he’s fired, he arrives at his girlfriend’s place flustered and babbling that it’s all a misunderstanding and he’ll get another job right away. She looks bemused and starts to pack her things around him. As she leaves, she admits she embezzled the money and pointed all the evidence at him.
Meanwhile, Andrew, by now a quivering heap in the bushes, is rescued by a cookie-selling girl who breaks into a cellar window to let him in. When she won’t leave his house he starts to have another panic attack and throws her out. She then starts claiming that he kissed her. Minutes after Dave sneaks back to apologize, fearing the police, a representative from the city knocks on the door and tells them they have until three that afternoon to vacate the premises because the house is being torn down. By the time three o’clock rolls around, seemingly everyone in the city is clamoring outside their door— cranes and police cars and SWAT trucks and TV vans and mobs of people screaming for them. When the police start tossing tear gas through the windows, the two losers cower in the kitchen and scream at everyone to leave them alone.
Then there’s silence.
They listen hard. Open the door to a white, blinding nothing.
They don’t spend their time trying to figure out where the world went. More interesting to them is how this all happened. Are they dead? (Dave: “We can’t be dead, we have cable.”) Were they abducted? Did they slip into a time vortex? Did they cause the phenomenon themselves? Getting nowhere with explanations, Dave decides to explore their surroundings. Andrew runs after him, unable to stand being alone for the first time in his life. They can walk on the nothing; in fact, its texture is a little bouncy. Dave tries to describe it, but can’t. Andrew: “Tofu. I’ve never actually had it, but I think maybe this is what it would feel like to walk on.”
With their surroundings thoroughly explored, Dave and Andrew begin to explore their friendship. From this point, NOTHING becomes a movie about something, though it keeps its loony, cartoony feel throughout. Dave Hewlett (Worth in CUBE) plays Dave and Andrew Miller (Kazan in CUBE) plays Andrew. Natali has said that naming the characters after the actors was “creative bankruptcy.”
Dave Hewlett seizes the self-centered nature of his character completely, and manages to keep just outside of unlikable. I found myself rooting for him to get his act together and become a better person. Andrew Miller had a tougher job, showing the transformation from an agoraphobic mess to someone who, in a void of outside influence, is able to face and overcome his fears and issues on his own terms. As his character changes over time, I kept wanting him to slow down to give Dave a chance to catch up. Both of these actors completely inhabit their roles and give the movie a strong level of credibility. Director Natali, for his part, does as good a job here as he did with CUBE. He’s been successful pulling riveting character stories out of minimal sets. It leaves me hoping that ECHO BEACH, the much hinted-at third film in the Minimalist Trilogy, actually happens.
And now we get to my favorite part of this column. The stuff I didn’t like.
Knowing nothing about NOTHING, I decided to watch the trailer before beginning the film. Big mistake. Huge mistake. Don’t do this.
If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve been exposed to viral videos. A year or so ago, a cool one went around where someone had edited a new trailer for the Disney film MARY POPPINS that made it look like a demonic horror film, closer in spirit to THE SHINING than to The Magic Kingdom.
(Mary Poppins scary trailer here)
I think Vincenzo Natali hired the same clown to make the trailer for NOTHING. It looked like the characters actually were abducted by aliens, who then harassed and tortured them mercilessly. I started watching NOTHING believing that this was a continuation of the projects run by the same government black ops group that conducted the CUBE experiment. As you can imagine, I was pretty stoked to get into it.
Then the film opened with a goofy but earnest voice over narration: “The following is a true story. The people are actual people. Their names are their actual names. Everything has been thoroughly researched and verified.” I had to shut it off and reevaluate things. Maybe things would get scary after the film got started. I tried some more. Dave and Andrew arrived in the Nothing… and still no scary. No experiments, no creepy events (save for one dream sequence that was bloody, but as weird and goofy as the rest of the film), no mostly invisible demons attacking and tormenting the protagonists. I took another walk to reevaluate again. I finally decided to throw the promises of the trailer on the trash heap of my mind and forget about them. From then on, enjoying NOTHING got tons easier.
NOTHING was a pretty good movie for what it was created to be—quirky and meaningful and unusual. The sense of fun is never lost throughout, and the characters are real enough that I was invested in everything that happened to them. I can’t help noting that it left me feeling a little empty, though. I still want to see the movie its trailer promised. It looked terrific!
I’m giving NOTHING three and a half stars, with two time-outs.
I’m giving the trailer zero stars and a couple of choice curse words.
© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon