When we talk about unforgettable characters, often they are characters we'd give almost anything to forget, savage malcontents who leave pain and anguish in their wake. Characters, at first glance, much like Johnny, the sour and dissatisfied protagonist of Mike Leigh's remarkable, unnerving "Naked."
A refugee from Manchester who in the film's opening minutes flees to London in a stolen car after committing a rape, Johnny is a raging nightmare. A red-haired beanpole with a ragged beard and a hacking cough, he is a vicious misogynist who beats women physically and verbally assaults anyone within striking distance of his blistering, abrasive tongue.
In conventional movie terms, Johnny is far enough over the edge of acceptable behavior to make him a very tough centerpiece for a film. But nothing British writer-director Mike Leigh has ever done is conventional, and "Naked," which won best director for Leigh at Cannes and best actor for star David Thewlis' searing performance, is a departure even for Leigh.
Though they often give that impression, Leigh's unusual films are not improvised, but neither are they conventionally scripted. Rather, Leigh and his cast participate in an extensive rehearsal period (12 weeks for "Naked") during which roles are in effect grown from the ground up.
The result, as recent works like "High Hopes" and "Life Is Sweet" testify, are films that cut deeper and go further in terms of character development while providing more opportunities for actors to astonish than anything else on the screen today.
While those two have a partially whimsical tone, Leigh's earlier work, theatrical and TV films like "Bleak Moments," "Grown Ups" and "Meantime," had much more of a downbeat thrust. Still, even Leigh has done nothing as extreme, intense and daring as "Naked"(selected theaters).
When he gets to London, Johnny heads for the flat of ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp). She's at work, but Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), her stoned waif roommate, is on the premises, and, out of a combination of boredom and spite, Johnny seduces her just to pass the time.
Smarter than most of the people he comes in contact with, Johnny is facile with words. Both with Sophie and with Louise when she shows up, he delights in verbal humiliation, in being showily cynical, letting his scathing fury at the world and everyone in it spray people like an acid bath. "You might already have had the happiest moment in your life," he snarls at Sophie in one of his milder outbursts, "and got nothing to look forward to but sickness and death."
Too antsy to stay at the flat, this sullen drifter heads out into a London as bleak as anything Dickens ever described. "Naked" records Johnny's two hellish nights on those bitter streets, detailing the people he comes into contact with, the eccentrics and dead-enders with nowhere else to go but at each other's throats.
Initially, however, it doesn't seem that bleak, as the first people encountered are Scottish street folk Archie (Ewen Bremner) and Maggie (Susan Vidler), a pair so horrifyingly daft even Johnny can't help but be gently amused.
Then, in one of "Naked's" most extended sequences, Johnny runs across Brian (Peter Wight), a night watchman guarding an empty building who shares Johnny's autodidactic state of mind. Discussions about the philosophical nature of the past, the present and the future ensue, with Johnny insisting, his gorge rising, "nobody has a future. The party's over, it's all breaking up."
Though that statement can be accurately read as an expression of Johnny's core nihilism, one of the things that makes "Naked" so provocative is the thread of unspoken social consciousness that flows beneath the surface. For Johnny's anger is more than personal, it inevitably expresses the frustration of Britain's on-the-dole underclass. Their talents wasted, these people are left out in the cold both literally and metaphorically as the go-goers of the Thatcher years (here represented by Greg Cruttwell's odious Jeremy) continue to rake in the spoils.
More than anything, though, "Naked" is a mesmerizing character study, an attempt to stretch the emotional boundaries of truth on film as far as they will go. For once we think we've seen as much of Johnny as we can take, like an etching by Escher we start to see something else, a glimpse of another person easily missed.
Just slipping through the cracks of Johnny's mask of savage anger can be noticed a haunted, hunted look, flashes of empathy and even self-knowledge. His intelligence begins to register, as does his love of books and how ferociously well-read he is.
What Leigh and his collaborators are after here is hardly a whitewashing of Johnny, a simplistic excusing of the more wretched of his qualities. On the contrary, "Naked" is determined never to let Johnny off the hook, to excuse or forgive him or think him less of a monster than he is.