Review: The Nothing Men

By  · Published on May 5th, 2010

A few months ago I covered the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. One of the films featured was Australian director Mark Fitzpatrick’s The Nothing Men. Its time at the festival saw two screenings turn into five; thus I was intrigued. Scheduling issues and a scratched screener, however, kept me from viewing the film fully.

These many months later a copy was made available to me, and thus – I review. The Nothing Men is the story of rough hewn crew of factory workers waiting out the final weeks of their employment before receiving their redundancy pay. After rumors spread of a company snitch infiltrating the ranks of another factory being the cause of its employees being fired before their pay date, the workers are immediately paranoid at the arrival of a transfer named David. They drink, smoke, gamble, and sometimes throw fists – all activities that will result in their termination if caught.

What follows is an exercise in human callousness; though almost to the point of parody at some times.

The nucleus of The Nothing Men are David, Jack, and Wesley.

Jack, the ringleader of the almost entirely unpleasant factory workers, is the alpha dog. Jack is without empathy, self-serving, and violent. He is the planter of some nasty seeds, and he relishes pushing the buttons of his soon to be ex-coworkers. In fact, he seems almost comically cruel at times, though in the end he is clearly in the sociopath column – unapologetically awful in every respect.

Wesley, who appears many times throughout the film when not in the factory setting half-naked, physically scarred, and popping pills in his bedroom, has a dark secret – and it’s eating away at him. Until we find out exactly what that secret is, he’s a reasonably likable character; soft-spoken, and prone to attempts at diffusing heated situations. Finally, there is the transfer, David. The filmmaker keeps the intentions of David veiled for a portion of the film, thus causing the viewer to question whether or not he is, in fact, a corporate snitch sent to monitor the behavior of the remaining employees. Still, he seems like a good fellow, and I found myself enjoying his character when he was on screen. Before you even realize you have a reason to empathize with David, you sort of do simply because it feels like the appropriate reaction.

The rest of the factory workers? Honestly, if they were to have been cut back on extensively, almost to the point of being background noise, the film would not have suffered for it. It’s not that these men didn’t have personality, but rather, their personalities and quirks were overshadowed by their generic meanness. Des, a balding forty-something is seen gently running his hands along the equipment he used to work, quietly lamenting the loss of his livelihood. His wife is cheating on him – he’s not a happy man. I feel like I’m supposed to care, but a short time into the film I’ve so thoroughly marked him as an über-prick that I have no emotional connection to his vague back-story. Simon, the greasy-haired stoner, is almost a caricature of a real person, laying on all of the expected high dude quips you’d hear from Tommy Chong on That ’70s Show. He’s not a bad addition to the cast – he’s simply a plot device. Stoner being stoned on the work property equals no pay for the entire team. I get it – but his counterpart is a crumpled beer can on the floor for prospective spying eyes to see. They served the same purpose, basically.

That all said, where the film really shines is with the two co-leads, David and Wesley. Martin Dingle Wall as Wesley is excellent in the skin of a deeply troubled, secretly suicidal man burdened by his past. He spends his nights numbing himself to the reality of his life, and his days pretending to be something he once might have been. That said, once you find out his secret – you really can’t like him anymore. Even Wesley’s heartfelt revelation is mired in the end by just how selfish it is. Perhaps that’s the point, however. If it is, Fitzpatrick does a fantastic job of playing with the emotions and loyalties of his viewers.

Finally there is the likely best known cast member, David Field as David – our prospective spy. Mr. Field impressed the hell out of me with his nuanced, slow release performance. He really, right until the very end, remains a layer of mysteries. Being the only employee allowed to leave the work establishment during the day, and wholly unwilling to discuss why this is so, the audience gets the opportunity to question his intentions right along with the rest of the Nothing Men. Once we’re privy to his personal life, and later, the decisions he makes – rational or otherwise, the range of emotional responses can be conflicting. He’s a good man, he’s a bad man, he’s a damaged man – and David Field’s last scene before the big finale at the warehouse is absolutely heartbreaking. I’d love to see him get more work stateside.

This is a film not built for happy endings, or to help restore your faith in humanity. We have the capacity for great cruelty, and The Nothing Men throws that in your face like ice water. On the finale, my reaction was mixed. There is brutality and retribution, and so far as I was concerned, it was in a way well deserved; but I was left wanting something a little deeper – something I could turn over in my head a few more times. I wasn’t disappointed, I simply wanted more to go away with.

In the end, The Nothing Men is a solid film, with three strong performances from its leads. As a writer and director, Mark Fitzpatrick makes an admirable first time outing. The camerawork is impressive, and the story does carry regardless of some threads that could have been pulled to make the film a cleaner product. It’s good stuff in the worst way; sad, harsh, and unrepentantly so.

With Cinema Vault (Canada) owning worldwide distribution rights, Alchemy Film Productions are looking to get some art-house releases in the near future here in the US. Of course, if you can’t catch it in North American theaters, DVD distribution is set for later this year. Keep an eye out and pick up The Nothing Men if you get an opportunity. It’s more than worth a watch.