One might think that a film that opens with a dark-alley rape scene will be a bit more comfortable to watch when the scene concludes, but Naked never relents. Mike Leigh builds his screenplays around improvised rehearsals based on a particular theme, and Naked is no different, which allows for the film to blossom into an exploratory examination of both archetypal beliefs and fully-fleshed characters. There is no preaching in Naked, but anybody who thinks that the behavior on display is being condoned or rationalized is missing the point. Instead, the incessant probing of an unsympathetic, educated nihilist opens doors to countless themes ranging from time to the meaning of life to social justice and feminism.
David Thewlis plays the rapist from the first scene, Johnny. He flees to the flat of an old girlfriend, starts to win her back with his wry charm, and seduces her roommate at the same time. Johnny is the type of fashionable nihilist with the wit and intelligence to back it up, but he’s also a bit delusional (anytime someone speaks apocalyptically about the “Book of Revelations,” assume they are. If they leave off the “s,” maybe they’re onto something) and refuses to commit himself to anything, likely out of fear. At some point he left Manchester for London and now he spends his time harassing people he meets and sharing his vision for the end of humanity with anyone who will listen. He’s like a less entitled, genuinely funny, and far more realistic counterpart to Tim Heidecker’s character in Rick Alverson’s recent The Comedy. He’s quick enough with his words to make you laugh, and he’s smart enough with them to make you care, too. When his consensual sex doesn’t seem any more passionate than the brutal opening scene, something must be up.
Those roommates that Johnny talks up, Louise (Lesley Sharp) and Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) are an exasperated 20-something who feels her last chance coming and a strung-out mirror of Johnny without the narcissism or intelligence. The dynamic between any grouping of these characters or the selfish, abusive landlord, who is a bit too flat as a symbol of upper-class corruption, is always pathetic emotionally and exhausting mentally.
There are people like this. We all know them. The talented person who got sucked into self-deprecating nihilism after one too many failures, the doormat who has already given up, and the burdened soul who is constantly fighting to avoid being pulled to either extreme. What makes Naked work is that all the characters expand far beyond these cores. Johnny’s monologues, one of which takes place while he shadows a late-night security worker, provide an unforgettable insight into himself. His philosophizing isn’t cheap or cliché in the slightest. That level of realness brings the whole film to life.
As a result, criticisms that could otherwise easily be levied against Naked, such as the misogyny on display, miss the point. If Leigh wanted us to take Johnny in, he wouldn’t have shown him raping someone. Indeed, his constant manipulation of Louise and Sophie makes him all the easier to hate. His intellectualism doesn’t excuse his delusions, and his nihilism doesn’t justify his effortlessness. Likewise, watching Louise and Sophie suffer abuse from both Johnny and their landlord does not condone it, but rather illuminates the problem. In real life, people fall for losers and criminals all the time, and that’s the reality that Naked presents to us. But the “Landlord from Hell” puts us in league with the women, and he also functions as a far more disgusting version of Johnny because his abuse stems from hedonism and selfishness. Having come into money enough to own the flat, he decided that having social-order on his side entitled him to rape and pillage simply because he won’t get caught. It’s appalling to watch, but as Johnny’s lengthy monologues show us, Naked’s text illuminates its subtext, but the two are never interchangeable. Just as the film doesn’t endorse Johnny’s doomsday predictions but rather shows them to help us understand the mental state that led to his lifestyle, the abuse of Sophie and Louise shows us the perils of an unfortunate reality while wisely straying away from psychologizing them. It’s not important what made them this way; it’s important that there are people in similar circumstances and similarly unjust things happen to them. Naked forces you to realize that.
Of course, this would not be quite so effective if not for the brilliant acting all around and for Mike Leigh’s impeccable direction. Making use of noirish shadows to dictate tone and lengthy tracking shots to add realism, Leigh also tunes down the background noise to bring us into the isolated world of the victims on display. Naked is a dark, twisted world, but Mike Leigh forces us to accept it and reflect on it.