After confronting burglars in his suburban home, a seemingly peaceful man reveals unsuspected facets of his character
At the beginning of Nobody, Bob Odenkirk is carrying off a deception bigger than any he practised in Better Call Saul, and its gradual unpeeling turns Ilya Naishuller’s film from one kind of story into another that’s much less expected. We start off thinking Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) is a peaceful man only turning violent in desperation; a wimp driven to the brink, like Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993) or Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs (1971). We later realise that violence was his calling all along, and it’s his quiet domesticated life that’s out-of-character.
He thus resembles the men played by Liam Neeson in Taken (2008) or Keanu Reeves in John Wick (2014), the latter of which shares a screenwriter (Derek Kolstad) and a producer (David Leitch) with Nobody. But there’s something considerably darker about this film. Maybe there was a time when Hutch wasn’t at home with brutality, and in recent years he’s certainly forsworn killing so he can hold down a normal job and raise a family, but ultimately he’s unable to resist it. “Deep down I always knew it was a facade”, he says of his life more ordinary. He’s not violent because he’s forced to be, but because he wants to be.
The irony, of course, is that this lack of self-control when the opportunity to knock heads together presents itself, this unwillingness to stand his ground and assert the alternative to which he claims to be committed, shows him up as weak, not strong. Nobody might feel almost like a vigilante movie at times, but look below the surface and surely it’s raising—wryly more than moralistically—some doubts about its protagonist at the same time it appears to be celebrating his exploits.
Director Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) opens proceedings with a combination of darkness, stylishness, and humour which marks the entire film. A close-up on Hutch’s face, cryptic and badly cut, is followed by a tour of his upper body revealing a bloody shirt and handcuffs. On the soundtrack, Nina Simone’s singing “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. Hutch produces, of all things, a kitten from his jacket. The camera then takes a wider view to disclose that two interrogators are sitting opposite him. One asks, “who are you?”
The answer, of course, is “nobody”. He’s just a nobody, as the ensuing montage of suburban routine makes very clear (hurried breakfasts, missing the garbage truck, going to work on a bus because his wife apparently gets the household’s one car). He’s a potent symbol of emasculation.
Then, one night, two masked burglars break into the Mansell’s house. His teenage son manages to knock one to the ground, and Hutch has the opportunity to brain the other with a golf club… but he doesn’t take it, and they get away. The nearly-mocking response of everyone—from a responding police officer, to a neighbour, to his own wife (Connie Nielsen)—makes it painfully clear they see his reluctance as unmanly. So does Hutch, but for different reasons. “I can’t believe I let this happen,” he says in voiceover, regretting he’s developed a soft heart. It’s only after the burglary that we learn he let the intruders go because he figured their threats were empty.
In any case, Hutch sets out to track down the burglars through an unusual tattoo he’d noticed. This leads to the best line in the movie (“give me the goddamn kitty-cat bracelet, motherfucker”), but it’s also a quite audacious piece of misdirection, because his revenge quest and indeed the burglary itself are narrative dead ends, serving only to reawaken in Hutch his comfort with violence. The turning point comes after he’s confronted the burglars at their home, as he now encounters a gang threatening a young woman on a bus, and successfully takes them all on in an imaginatively choreographed fight.
In terms of character revelation, the key here is that he’s not doing this to protect the young woman, in whom he seems barely interested. He’s doing it because he needs to smash some heads. In terms of plot development, meanwhile, this fight sets in train the remainder of the film’s events when one of the gang turns out to be the brother of a mobster—Yulian (played with magnificent menace by Aleksey Serebryakov). It’s now not just Hutch versus two burglars, or Hutch versus the bus louts, but Hutch versus the whole Russian mafia! And as Yulian observes, the supposed nobody is turning out to be “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Nobody thus hangs on a huge coincidence, but it’s so well-paced and well-judged we hardly care. In time, all will be explained, or at least hinted at—by the redacted Pentagon files, the gold bars hidden in Hutch’s den, his description of his old job as “the last guy any organisation wants to see at their door”. It all indicates he was a governmental assassin of some murkiness. However, plot isn’t what really interests Naishuller or Kolstad, nor is great subtlety in characterisation and relationships. The raison d’etre of Nobody is the spectacle and whether you find it cathartic, or horrifying, to see a meek man turn out to be anything but, through lavishly depicted scenes of ultra-violence.
In Odenkirk’s performance, there’s something disquietingly unknowable about Hutch even after his secrets have been revealed. How much of the Mr Nobody act was an act? How much does he actually care about his family, now his alter ego’s in action again? Does he really intend to return to staidness after all this is over, or is it just the beginning of an unstoppable rampage, because he’s an addict who’s given in to temptation? Is he just going to keep on getting as much as he can of the thing he craves until everyone around him is destroyed—to the accompaniment of Steve Lawrence’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me”? That he sets his own house on fire at one point might suggest there is no going back.
Odenkirk is perfectly (if surprisingly) cast to keep us guessing. He’s an actor who always gives the impression that, however expressive he’s being, there’s still plenty more he isn’t letting on. Many in the supporting cast are also effective, including Christopher Lloyd as Hutch’s father, J.P Manoux as a blackmailed Pentagon functionary, Billy MacLellan as the kid’s studiedly macho Uncle Charie, and Paul Essiembre as an annoyingly gung-ho neighbour. The majority of the film’s humour falls to them while Odenkirk plays things relatively straight and, like Kolstad’s script, they get the balance just right. Nobody is often amusing, but never so amusing that the nihilistic blackness at its heart is quite obliterated.
Naishuller, meanwhile, shoots in an efficient and no-nonsense way, and a blandly anonymous Winnipeg providing the perfect setting. The film doesn’t draw attention to itself, but Naishuller gets every important point across simply and successfully. For example, when contrasting the stillness of scenes at Hutch’s home with the bloody chaos in which he’s involved outside it.
Nobody is a small-scale film. There are no grand sweeping lessons to be drawn from it, the events it shows have no obvious resonance beyond the limits of the movie itself, and the characters are fairly flat. Even Odenkirk’s Hutch, with all his secrets, is somewhat two-dimensional since we don’t learn much about him beyond those secrets. But it does do something different with the idea of the retired man of action, craftily implying that he’s not so much reluctant as desperate to get back to the mayhem. And it tells this tale in a consistently watchable way.
USA • JAPAN | 2021 | 92 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • RUSSIAN • SPANISH
director: Ilya Naishuller.
writer: Derek Kolstad.
starring: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Aleksey Serebryakov, RZA, Michael Ironside, Colin Salmon & Christopher Lloyd.