New Releases: Nothing Man (2019) - Reviewed

Usually, a movie is less about its story and far more about how it tells it. That is not really how things work out for Nothing Man, whose story drags down some solid filmmaking. It is the story of a homeless man with no memory, investigating the death of his only friend. It is about damaged people living on the fringes of society. Most of them are trying to put their pasts behind them, but this one guy is struggling to piece together his. This plot could have been told in many different ways. The tactic here is to put viewers in the mind of the protagonist (called “Noam,” short for “No Name”) using quick cuts to and from his POV, grainy camerawork and short, out of context, flashbacks. Our perspective of him is as fractured as his own. This style is pretty effective at setting and maintaining an unsettling mood.

Unfortunately, the rest of this mystery/thriller is not nearly as good. Noam’s world is not established well enough for the mystery to be compelling. As a result, almost everything is revealed in a long speech toward the end. It is hard to get to know Noam or his allies in any significant way, up until then. That made it difficult to get invested in his quest.

I have seen similar stories before. What makes Nothing Man intriguing from a stylistic standpoint is the way Noam is shown to us. This is a man who is completely unaware of his prior life except for brief flashes of faces, voices and pain that come while he is asleep. He is caught between running away from it and needing to understand it. That confusion is conveyed successfully. We are as disoriented as he is. It does not take flashy effects to get it across. The visual approach is fairly simple, then mixed with the tortured performance by Daniel Hall. Some of it may be due to the low budget, though the filmmakers used it to their advantage. In that regard, a more polished production would not necessarily have been for the better. The world of the movie is dark and dangerous. That could have been lost with a smoother look.

The visuals of Nothing Man contribute to the mood, which is desperate and sad. This is created, in part, by the music and performances. Basically, everything is in service of that, except for the plot. It is a mystery in the sense that there are major things we do not know. However, Noam does not uncover them so much as people just decide to tell him what is going on. The turns the story takes are not very interesting, probably because they mostly feel arbitrary. The ideas are there, yet it seemed like important details were missing. Since the characters are not totally developed, that leaves them as concepts any motivation could be attached to. There is the flawed hero, his mentor/friend, the sidekick and a few slimy villains. Besides Noam, there is little that can be added to any of those descriptions.

I liked a lot about Nothing Man without actually enjoying it as a whole. It is fittingly gritty and full of people who are clearly hurting in some way. I believed it, but I did not believe what those people do or the trajectory of the story. That made all the stuff I liked come off only as tone setting for a detective story that failed to engage me. In this case, its story overwhelms how it tells it.

--Ben Pivoz