Criterion’s reissue of Mike Leigh’s Naked reveals its message on its front cover: a furious Johnny (David Thewlis) scowls in anger. That’s what this film is about—the raw fury of a young man and the damage he inflicts upon those around him.
Originally released in 1993, Naked is an ambitious work. It attempts to address the dispossessed of a post-Thatcher England, with Johnny as the Virgil of this fallen world.
The opening scene, shot down a back alley at night, reveals the shadowy outline of two people. As the camera zooms in, Johnny pins a young woman against the wall as she screams in distress. The scene is shocking in its sexual violence as Johnny tries to throttle her. He then steals a car and drives through the night to the home of his ex-girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp) and her roommate, Sophie (Katin Cartlidge).
The film focuses on this triangle of characters: the brutal Johnny, the damaged Louise who still loves him, and the sensual Sophie. Louise takes Johnny in, yet he’s not the type of man who shows any gratitude. Instead, he treats Louise with mocking disdain as his wandering eye appraises Sophie.
Louise is the kind of woman who’s been passed over—she’s at that age where the bloom of her youth is gone, she’s a little heavy, and her loneliness is palpable. Johnny’s reappearance kindles hope within her for renewed romance, with the chance of marriage and family. Yet her hopes are quickly thwarted.
In an excruciating scene, Louise, dressed in her nightgown, sits alone in her bedroom and listens as Johnny and Sophie have sex in the next room. Johnny reams Sophie with the same back alley violence that we’ve already seen. In Amy Taubin’s essay on Naked, she notes, “Johnny’s a hate fucker—bang, bang, bang—he uses his prick purely for punishment.” Johnny is also well versed in the classics, but he uses his intellect just like his prick—as a weapon to humiliate others.
As an article of faith, Leigh wants us to believe that the crude and homeless Johnny has formidable seductive power. However, we never understand why Johnny is irresistible to women. No do we comprehend his volatile rage. Norman Mailer once wrote that in depicting violent characters, one must reveal the inner logic of their violence. That never happens in Naked, for Johnny’s malevolence remains a mystery by the time the credits roll.
As Johnny prowls the inner city at night, he eventually takes shelter in front of a business office. A kindly middle-aged security guard named Brian (Peter Wight) lets Johnny in from the cold. Brian shares his dinner with Johnny and shows him a photo of where he intends to retire, a small cottage on the Irish Coast. “It looks like a shit hole,” Johnny replies. There’s something about Johnny that makes the skin crawl. No amount of kindness or decency—whether it’s from an ex-girlfriend or a lonely security guard—can reach his black heart of bile.
The main attraction of Naked is Johnny’s rambling dissertations on the pointlessness of work, love, and anything else that people aspire to. Eventually we get a hint of the source of Johnny’s despair. In a bizarre monologue, Johnny claims that the “future is fucked”, then explains to Brian that the Book of Revelation’s ‘mark of the beast’ is the modern industrial bar code. Johnny sounds like a rube from the American Bible Belt, and one tires of his prattle.
I think Leigh meant for Johnny to be the Hamlet of post-industrial England, but he’s not that. Johnny is a classic sociopath, incapable of empathy or kindness and unable to recognize the kindness that others show him.
Which leads us now to the main problem with Naked. When a protagonist is so repulsive, the viewer loses any emotional tie to the story. When Johnny becomes the hunted in a back alley as a street gang beats him senseless, there’s no dramatic tension. No one cares what happens to him.
Leigh is capable of brilliance, like the joyous Topsy-Turvy and the clever Happy-Go-Lucky, replete with fascinating characters. But in Naked we’re stuck with a nihilistic protagonist. The result is a two-hour journey to oblivion, down the dark alley of a twisted soul.
The Blu-Ray version of Naked includes audio commentary from Leigh, Thewlis, and the late Katin Cartlidge, who died in 2002. Extras include essays by film critics Amy Taubin and Derek Malcolm, and an interview with Leigh on the BBC program, The Art Zone.