Johnny, the “protagonist” in Mike Leigh’s 1993 pitch-black comedy, “Naked,” can be examined in two directions. First: there’s the vitriolic, acerbic, too-smart-for-his-own-good, egoistic, misogynistic, misanthropic, spiteful, hateful wag. That side makes him one of the most odious characters in film history, aside from, say, Cruella De Vil, who skinned puppies for a coat. Then, there’s the side to Johnny that’s sympathetic. Sure, he’s misguided and he treats women badly, but he’s gifted and better read than anyone in film history this side of Will Hunting, and he always has a droll gibe on cue. You might not want to hang out with him, but if you had to, he’d keep you mighty entertained. The viewers are not supposed to like Johnny.
The film follows Johnny as a sexual encounter turns too rough, and he has to skip town to his ex-girlfriend Louise’s drab apartment, where he beds down with his ex’s loopy roommate, Sophie, before spurning her. Thus, he sets off on a journey into the seedy underbelly of London that lasts most of the film, encountering characters on the way.
There is a third way to examine Johnny, and that is as a performance. David Thewlis’ gaunt, seething character study is a gut-wrenching turn, nowhere near the slow-speaking, mustachioed Remus Lupin Thewlis later played in the Harry Potter films. The way Thewlis brings Johnny to life is nothing short of precision, an act of not only spitting on the viewer, but spitting on all of humanity, after taking a giant chug of haterade. Thewlis’ Johnny grapples with sanity, often spilling over the edge. A further possibility is that Leigh’s film is a study of psychosis, Johnny being unable to properly socialize due to manic depression. Thewlis captures this struggle perfectly.
The fact that much of Thewlis’ dialogue is improvised gives the character an extra dose of believability. He is a character with no inhibitor, a vomitorium of witticisms, and Thewlis does most of it off the top of his head. It’s a performance akin to a rapper freestyling for 131 minutes and the result coming out like Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral.” It’s a broken metaphor, sure, but the fraying edges of trouble that Thewlis executes can only be properly expressed in broken metaphors.
“How did you get here?” Louise asks Johnny when she first encounters him in her home.
“Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till doomsday,” Johnny retorts, Thewlis never wavering. Oh, how the viewer would love to hate him, but can’t.
The director Neil LaBute, in the special features of the Criterion Collection edition of “Naked,” thusly espouses rabid praise on Thewlis: “David Thewlis just erupted in this part, and it’s indelible, the mark that he made. You kind of can’t think of the movie without thinking of him.”
Johnny has been ravaged by his mental condition. His teeth are a corrugated mess, his mustache is an ugly yellow caterpillar, and he’s possibly the least sarcastic person in the history of film (“least sarcastic” being a sarcastic way of saying “most sarcastic”). He feels caged by a one-night stand, he can’t talk without making a terrible joke that twists the conversation into spiteful banter, and he’s hopelessly up himself. You will hate Johnny. You will hate him, and yet you will root for his overeducated, unseemly charm—and that might be Thewlis’ great achievement.
Maxwell Williams is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Interview, the Hollywood Reporter, GOOD, and Art in America.