Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Nothing Men: Time in Purgatory


1) a condition or place in which the souls of those dying penitent are purified from venial sins, or undergo the temporal punishment that, after the guilt of mortal sin has been remitted, still remains to be endured by the sinner.

2) any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like.

3) serving to cleanse, purify, or expiate.

I think part of the reason I'm not a huge fan of gore films is that there's rarely any tension. You have a pretty good idea of what you're going to get going in. There will be people killed, there will be sharp implements (with the occasional blunt one for variety) employed, and there's going to be a lot of red stuff and squishy bits. It's certainty to a fault, and I tend to find uncertainty scarier. But I've already covered this ground ad nauseam in my discussion of the Saw films, so no need to run that particular dead horse through an unmistakably lethal but highly unlikely and overly complex death trap again.

So, uncertainty makes for tension, long story short. Tension is the bow drawn back, the roller coaster at the top of the hill, the silence after the unforgivable thing has been said. In my opinion, you can scare the shit out of people without spilling a drop of blood on screen. All you need is secrets. All you need is the sudden reversal. All you need is the twist. All you need is uncertainty.

The Nothing Men is, largely, a masterful exercise in tension and uncertainty.

Six men in a machine shop. The company's closing a bunch of their facilities, and for bureaucratic reasons unclear to non-Australians like me, the men have to remain at the site for a specific amount of time. Otherwise, they forfeit their severance packages. The machines and tools and materials have all been stripped away. The shop is a shell. But the men remain, doing nothing all day but drinking beer and playing cards and talking shit. Serving out the remainder of their time. 

The silence and stillness is a bit of a problem, though. The sort of ball-busting that's common among work colleagues starts to get a little loud when it echoes off empty walls with no sounds of work to muffle it. There's nothing to distract them from little slights and long-held grudges. One man has an unfaithful wife. One has a promiscuous daughter. One is a shy virgin, perpetually frustrated and unable to talk to women. One is a committed stoner with a limited grasp of the circumstances. One is a bookworm among blue-collar men. One is carrying on a fling with a woman who runs a lunch truck that comes by the shop. Without actual work. the shop is a pressure cooker. Sit there, do nothing, and spend all of your time talking to men who know enough about you to hurt you, but not well enough to care if they do. Everyone has secrets.

And this is before they find out about the new guy. Rumor has it he was at another location and after two days, everyone got fired for infractions - drinking on the job, gambling on the job, leaving the premises during work hours. Rumor has it this new guy is a spy, sent to rat out employees so the company doesn't have to pay their severance. It wouldn't be the shittiest thing a manufacturing concern ever did. And then the new guy arrives. The six men begin to plan.

The better part of The Nothing Men is a slow accumulation of dread, as information about these people trickles out. Why does the bookworm have trouble sleeping and a Zoloft prescription? Why does the shy virgin watch the lunch truck woman through the window? Why does the new guy go home for lunch every day and sit quietly on his sofa, staring at the cross above the fireplace? Resentment and paranoia thickens like storm clouds, and the violence inherent in these men, in this situation, escapes in sudden spurts, thwarted as soon as it has begun. Shots are composed and static, empty spaces as lyrical in places as the occupied ones. The silence is oppressive, and the voices breaking it do nothing to soothe us. The more we learn, the less sure we are, the less comfortable we are watching this tightly compressed limbo fall apart. Something will have to give, and it could come from any direction.

Which, ultimately, it does. Some of it from places you'd expect, but more often places you wouldn't. This movie is expert at the non-obvious choice. Still, as the story of these men unfolds, there are new horrors with each revelation, with every turn of circumstance toward the increasingly cruel. Comparatively little blood is shed, but every word wounds. In end, everyone pays the price for their flaws, for their sins, and for their secrets. Judgment is dealt. Suffering turns to punishment, punishment to purification, and in the end, a blue unblinking sky, and a single gunshot.

No comments:

Post a Comment