The New Cult Canon: Naked

The New Cult Canon: Naked

“You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And humanity is just a cracked egg. And the omelet stinks.” — Johnny, Naked

The majority of us go through life dodging the essential questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Is there a God, and how is His presence (or lack thereof) important? And what possible significance could our tiny lives—in a tiny fraction of time on a tiny little island in the infinite space of the universe—have in the grand scheme of things? Johnny, the bedraggled misanthrope played by David Thewlis in Mike Leigh’s 1994 masterpiece Naked, can’t bring himself to look away. While others shuffle mindlessly through the London fog, anesthetized by smoking, drinking, fucking, and watching TV, Johnny is a raw nerve, willfully exposing himself to the bleak realities of existence and proselytizing like a street-corner derelict to anyone who will listen—and those who don’t care to, for that matter. He’s poised on the brink of madness—indeed, a couple of his monologues are no more convincing than those of a garden-variety conspiracy theorist—yet he’s a seeker, too, scurrying to collect every scrap of knowledge he can gather on his way to oblivion. 

Emphasis on the word “scurrying”: With his beakish nose and mangy nest of brown hair, Thewlis has the features of an oversized rodent. It’s no mistake that Leigh opens the film in a dank Manchester alleyway, or that he later has Johnny cheekily comment that on the streets of London, a rat is always less than 30 feet away. And like a rodent, Johnny acts as a pestilence to everyone he encounters, spreading misery and heartache, to say nothing of the physical and emotional abuse, and perhaps an STD for good measure. (“You don’t want to fuck me,” he warns. “You’ll catch something cruel.”) Leigh introduces him in the ugliest of circumstances, with a rough tryst against an alley wall that edges into sexual assault, yet it’s a tribute to the burnished soul of Thewlis’ performance that Johnny comes away as a more complex, sympathetic creature than events seem to dictate. Somehow this bullying, ranting, arrogant force of nature transforms before our eyes into an example of humanity at its most fragile and resilient. 

After his abbreviated introduction in Manchester, Johnny steals a car and heads off to London, where he lands at the doorstep of an ex-girlfriend named Louise (Lesley Sharp) who’s now logging time in a dead-end office job. In the meantime, he meets Louise’s flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), a glum sexpot in fishnets whose rock-bottom self-esteem makes her easy pickings for a man of Johnny’s scruffy charisma. Not many guys can expect to bed a woman after confronting her with the grimmest of existential scenarios (“Have you ever thought that you may have already lived the happiest day of your whole life, and all you have left to look forward to is fuckin’ sickness and purgatory?”), but Johnny and Sophie engage in a little rough trade anyway. How else to while away a dull afternoon? 

The helpless, hapless Sophie follows her self-destructive instincts by falling instantly in love with Johnny, but the tougher, plain-Jane Louise knows him well enough to see through his bullshit. Theirs is the most complex relationship in the film, tortured by a past that obviously wasn’t pretty—when Louise sees Johnny crashing on her couch as if he were an old friend, she’s clearly stunned by his audacity—and yet suffused with feelings that still run deep. Leigh is famous for his rigorous technique of working with the actors to create full character histories, and that method pays off in their very first scene together, which instantly suggests their familiarity with each other and a complex set of tensions between them. In one of his many stunning displays of verbal dexterity, the irascible Johnny slips around Louise’s question about why he left Manchester: 


Johnny has a talent for talking his way into and out of corners—and in this case, avoiding telling the real truth about why he fled to London—but he’s being honest about his incapacity for boredom, which both animates his fierce intellect and leaves him unprotected and vulnerable. He’s impatient with people who have no intellectual curiosity (i.e. everyone in the film, with one notable exception) and a complete unwillingness to question the world around them. Seeing Louise take a normal job in the city like all the other drones drives him crazy, and his frustration manifests itself in ugly ways, as he treats humanity alternately like a cold anthropologist, an abusive misanthrope and sadist, or some combination thereof. They all become reluctant sounding boards for his philosophical rants, most of which underline the utter pointlessness of existence or speculate about when our brief time on the planet will end. A few choice bits: 

On the human body: “It’s the most sophisticated mechanism in the universe, and yet it’s so fucking quiet, isn’t it?… It’s like this wet, pink factory. What the fuck are they making in there? I mean, what’s the product? You never see any delivery trucks coming and going now, do you?”

On evolution: “If you take the whole of time and represent it by one year, we’re only in the first few moments of the first of January. There's a long way to go. Only now we’re not going to spout extra limbs and wings and fins, because evolution itself is evolving. When it comes, the apocalypse itself will be part of the process of that leap of evolution… Mankind must cease to exist, at least in material form.”

On God: “What if God just put us here for His own entertainment? That’s all we are, just something for him to have a bit of a laugh at.” 

Without playing armchair psychologist too much, it’s possible to hear a lot of the famously cantankerous Leigh channeled through Thewlis’ performance. Beginning with his debut feature, the aptly titled Bleak Moments, Leigh has balanced empathy and warmth toward his characters with a strong jolt of class resentment aimed at Thatcherian social policy. Johnny is a raw, enormously powerful expression of Leigh’s darker side—just as the philosophically settled Poppy in last year’s Happy Go Lucky represents the opposite—and it makes Naked a potent critique of a society that pushes the undesirables to the margins. Johnny isn’t the only soul edging close to oblivion; Naked is filled with characters who are dangerously unsettled, like Sophie, who hangs onto her spot in the flat only because the owner is off on safari, or the many drifters who scavenge the streets of London at night, huddling in doorways to keep from the cold. Johnny’s astounding intellect might make him special, but in the end, it doesn’t make his situation any easier, or extend him opportunities for upward mobility. (Not that he’d accept such opportunities anyway, given his contempt for the professional class.)

The centerpiece of Naked is a bravura sequence that introduces Johnny to Brian (Peter Wight), a sweet-natured night watchman who kindly brings Johnny in from the cold and gets an earful from him in the bargain. Brian’s job isn’t to guard people or property, it's to watch over the empty space within an office building, a task Johnny recognizes as the epitome of pointless tedium. (“Someone could break in here and steal all the fuckin’ space and you wouldn’t know it’s gone, would you?”)  But Johnny knows a good philosophical space when he sees one, and he finds a perfect audience in Brian, who’s introspective in his own way, mainly because he needs something to occupy his mind during the long, lonely hours in the building. (His use of a special wand to mark where he’s been—and prove that he exists at all, really—is the film’s bluntest piece of symbolism.) Brian likes to ponder his future, which will take him away from a job that Johnny says a “tall chimpanzee” could be trained to do, but that gets Johnny going on what the future really means and whether it’s even worth speculating about at all: 


As a counterpoint (or mirror image) to Johnny, Leigh offers Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), a Patrick Bateman type who uses his wealth and privilege as a license for abuse, power games, and gross impropriety. Leigh means to hold up Jeremy as an example of how the rich are excused for behavior that would not be abided from the great unwashed; when Jeremy assaults Sophie, she knows well enough not to alert the police to the matter. But to my mind, Jeremy plays into the hands of Leigh’s harshest critics, who accuse him of inflating his characters into grotesque, life-sized editorial cartoons. Leigh cannot bring himself to extend a sliver of empathy to Jeremy, with his turtlenecks and expensive coif and mirthless giggle and casual, unmotivated nastiness. He exists for a narrow symbolic purpose, and it would be a shock to discover that Leigh worked as thoroughly with Cruttwell on devising the character's backstory as he did with his other actors. 

But in Johnny, Leigh and Thewlis have created one of the most electrifying, memorable characters in recent (or even distant) memory, a street-corner philosopher who’s simultaneously a scruffy underdog and a rabid narcissist. There are times when Johnny’s intellectual queries and monologues cut sharply into the most basic matters of existence, and others, like an end-of-days rant he directs at the night watchman, that are an assemblage of conspiratorial hooey. At all times, he’s a man trying to make sense of the world—though as with any great mind, his ideas, even the bad ones, tend to calcify into unyielding “truth”—but Naked treats him with just the right mix of ambivalence and hard-won sympathy. The closing shot of a beaten but defiant Johnny, limping out onto the street like a wounded animal, is a powerful, life-affirming testament to human resilience. Maybe there’s hope for the species after all.

Next week: Dead Ringers
August 20: Stuck
August 27: The Lovers On The Bridge
September 3: Slacker

Filed Under: Film

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