Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
“It is important to set up for the audience the worst possible picture of this guy.”
This is how Mike Leigh describes the pre-credit scene, the very first moments in his film, and the very first glimpse we get of Johnny, its protagonist. We see him from behind, committing what is, or certainly turns into, a rape. Then he runs off, steals a car, and while he is underway over the almost empty highway to London, the credits roll.
Charming bloke, this Johnny…
Unusually for Leigh, this film focuses mostly on Johnny’s journey, rather than having the familiar ensemble cast, and so we’re stuck with him. Immediately confronted with the problem of how to feel about this guy. “And of course,” notes the great director, “he turns out to be far more complex than just a baddie.”
We first see him clearly after he has arrived in London, looking for ex-girlfriend Louise’s house. Here he settles himself on the porch, but meets another woman: Sophie, her flatmate. An amalgam of ditz and goth who clearly spends her time enjoying various unspecified substances, Sophie has no idea of what she might be in for when she suggests he come inside to have a cuppa. “Do you have something for a headache? You know, like… a monkey wrench or something?” Johnny quips, which elicits a giggle from Sophie. She asks him whether he is just Louise’s mate, as opposed to her boyfriend, and without missing a beat he retorts “primate”. He obviously has a brain, and clearly he can charm – in a way – when he sets his mind to it. Modern audiences will certainly appreciate the joke, when he says “I used to be a werewolf. But I’m alright NOWOOWOOW!”, and howls like a dog.
And so, incrementally, we get to know Johnny. Leigh is too intelligent a filmmaker to burden us with Johnny’s background, though he drops a hint here and there. He just is, as are all of the characters in this film. Equally, Sophie is never explained, but rather intuited. We, as the audience, might feel we know someone, not like her exactly, but maybe just a bit like her. Enough to understand why she might be vulnerable to the likes of Johnny.
From their flirtations we cut to the villain of the piece, Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell). A privileged predatory yuppie in the American Psycho mould, whose portrayal, Leigh insists, is accurate – though he may seem a bit one-dimensional compared to the other characters in the film. He is certainly vicious, the upshot of which will be brought home to us, shockingly, later in the film.
When we cut back to the apartment, it is to see Louise come back from a long hard day, only to be confronted by Johnny, who immediately starts putting her down. This is the corrosive part of him which, it is very easy to believe, keeps him running from place to place, never able to settle anywhere without causing disruption. By this time Johnny and Sophie have evidently become intimate. She uses her body as a way to communicate, while Johnny increasingly uses sex as a form of punishment. Johnny, we come to understand, is that queasily familiar individual: the hate-fucker.
The film comes into its own when Johnny provokes the inevitable conflicts and leaves the apartment to ramble about the streets of London alone. He walks around aimlessly, extemporizing on an endless hodgepodge of philosophies which barely hang together. From Darwin to Nostradamus and Revelations, he seems to have dipped in to every book he could filch, without a real framework to judge these ideas by, save his own very bright but undiscriminating mind. He discovers there, perhaps inevitably, many conspiracies and portents. And by walking with him, we as an audience, get the tidbits of him that are vulnerable. The bits where some gentleness seeps through. Apparently, as long as the relationship is brief enough: he has it in him to show a measure of empathy. And we again are treated to a dose of his wry sense of humour. When a man scrambles by, obviously strung out, yelling: “MAGGIE!”, Johnny blithely observes that “those days are over”, in reference to Thatcher, rather than to the screamer’s missing girlfriend. And in a rare moment of contentment and ease, when he is allowed a shower in yet another woman’s borrowed apartment, he quips: “Now listen. You’re not gonna creep up on me with a big knife dressed up as your mother, are ya?”
“In a sense,” observes Thewlis of his character, “it’s about the death of love in himself. He feels the hole in himself so deeply. He may not be compassionate, but he cares a great deal.” Which is to say, he wounds pre-emptively, a form of self-defence. And the tension between his narcissistic injury and his abject terror of – and profound need for – a real human connection can never be resolved. That’s Johnny. We start to feel we know someone not quite like him, but maybe a little bit like him. We may share some of his anger, however undirected, at a disconnected world in which people rootlessly float about, wounded to such an extent they lash out against the very thing they crave. Angry, disillusioned conspiracy theorists have always been with us, after all. Though it is beyond the scope of this piece to try and cover all the people he meets, the discussions he has with them, and their foibles and vulnerabilities: it is an extraordinary sequence. All by itself it is ample reason to see the film.
Leigh insists these are not, in a strict sense, improvised scenes. It was built upon improvisations by the actors on a theme, but then turned into a precise script. “Personally, I don’t like improvisation on camera. It doesn’t happen at all in this film” he says in the director’s commentary. It has to be written in a precise way and it has to be precisely shot. This entire film was shot on location, although you see hardly any London landmarks at all. (The communications tower, right at the beginning, is one of them.) The apartment in which the introductory sequences were shot, are the actual rooms in the house we see. No sets. This serves to give the film a queasy sense of realism, despite the heightened dialogue.
Another obvious reason this film achieves its heightened, yet almost documentary feel, is the acting. Thewlis is mesmerizing as the peripatetic louse he portrays, never making any excuses for him, freely allowing him to be as scathing and toxic as he needs to be for the movie to remain true to itself. We need an actor like Thewlis for Johnny to be compelling enough to bear with him through all the pain he inflicts. Lesley Sharp as Louise is extraordinary. She seems to do so little and to such great effect. We immediately sense how conflicted she is, not taking Johnny’s crap on the one hand, but with a great affection for her scruffy, drowning pseudo-genius. She is obviously hurt by his words, but not enough to summon the fortitude to send him packing, nor does she ever need to. He will eventually flee of his own accord. Sophie is portrayed by the late, great Katrin Cartlidge. It is hard to imagine how she kept herself sane through improvisations and rehearsals, as her character is among the most maltreated in the film.
For all the shocking violence we have already witnessed, worse is yet to come. Not only is violence inflicted on Johnny himself, who knowingly ventures into very dangerous territory and is injured horribly, due to an unprovoked attack. It is also, yet again, inflicted on Sophie who meets another even crasser abuser in her rapist landlord, Jeremy. This is the point where the question asserts itself whether the film bleeds into senseless misogyny. Sophie’s brutal rape is a circumstance which forces the women together, but they were already brought together by the circumstance of sharing the flat. (Though it leads to an incredibly powerful scene in which both women share a drink and manage to never even mention the rape, while implicitly acknowledging its impact.) And it is tempting to view the sequence as a mere excuse for Johnny. After all: for his many abuses he is not as bad as Jeremy, who seems to get off on his fellow human’s suffering. After repeat viewings, however, I tend to see it as the force of masculine privilege descending on these women, who are victimized merely due to their lack of these things. Jeremy serves to illustrate the same patriarchal order which enables Johnny to inflict the pain he causes. The film exposes the misogyny already omnipresent, and what it facilitates: not just the sadistic type of power-play Jeremy enjoys, but also the wretched torment caused by Johnny’s self-loathing, cutting attitude.
In the end Johnny is never redeemed, nor ought he to be. He remains a thief, a liar, and a hate-fucker who punishes people for caring about him. Ultimately, of course he runs. But when, in the extraordinary final sequence, we see him hobble away from yet another place where he might have found some respite, we do sympathise with him. It is a remarkable feat: the film makes us feel for Johnny, without being able to quite like him, and without ever being made to condone his actions. In this, the film is a radical excersise in empathy, and one of the very few movies to cause some real change in our thinking. And though it has many other merits, this is what makes it a truly important film.