“Ray & Liz” — the haunted and pungent debut feature by photographer Richard Billingham, who’s been dabbling in the form since the late ’90s — feels like watching someone painstakingly build a rusty time machine that only brings them back to their own rotten past. And to what end?
Billingham’s work has always been lauded for its lack of overt beauty; his most acclaimed pictures find his layabout parents cooped up inside the bleakest council flat in all of Thatcher-era Birmingham, the images striking for their deprivation and self-sufficiency. Rather than mine his home life for manufactured poetry, Billingham shot his family with an anthropological flare, as though he’d smuggled a camera into an animal enclosure that the bourgeois art world had only seen from the outside. (Billingham’s 1998 short “Fishtank” has nothing and everything to do with the similarly named Andrea Arnold film that would follow a few years later.)
In “Ray & Liz,” Billingham recreates his old memories (real or imagined) as though each moment were a shard of a broken mirror that he’s trying to piece back together with his bare hands. The result is a ripe and bloody act of self-reflection so personal that it can feel like Billingham made it only for himself — that he’s standing between us and whatever he’s smeared on screen. But the film, like Billingham’s photography, is all the more powerful for its refusal to tidy up, explain itself, or try to glom some kind of retroactive grace onto an impoverished existence that was defined by boredom and neglect. Through the right lens, a life can be appreciated like a landscape.
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Cut from the same cloth as hardknock cine-memoirs like Terence Davies’ “The Long Day Closes,” but stitched together into a far less translucent quilt, “Ray & Liz” sinks into the past through a grim sliver of the present. The film is framed by desolate scenes of Billingham’s alcoholic father, Ray (played with nearly wordless pain by Patrick Romer), who rots alone in the small room where he waits for his regular deliveries of gunk-brown mystery liquor.
“Under the Skin” cinematographer Daniel Landin, shooting in a boxy Academy ratio that retains the snapshot-like intimacy of Billingham’s photographs, trains his 16mm camera on the smallest of details. Every texture and ritual is turned into a portal of some kind. The twitching antennae of an ant as it skitters across Ray’s bed. The impression the man’s body leaves in his bedsheets. The red glow of the space heater that spirits us back in time to the mid-1970s.
Before the film settles into the first of its two long flashbacks, it would be easy to mistake “Ray & Liz” for an observational documentary. That changes when Billingham abruptly cuts back to his childhood, when he and his younger brother Jason (Callum Slater) were cooped up in a grim council flat with their wiry drunken father (played in his younger years by Justin Salinger) and apathetic brute of a mother (Ella Smith, whose delicate performance keeps Liz’s desire just out of reach). Time moves differently in these Black Country places, and the same gray sky has always hung over Birmingham, but the movie’s obsessive attention to period detail always lets us know when it’s supposed to be.
Billingham, a natural observer, mostly relegates himself to the periphery. He’s just a little kid fiddling with a tape recorder in the first episode, which offers a dire look back at how stealing drinks was the only way to animate his parents into action. When Ray and Liz take little Richard (Jacob Tuton) out for a rare trip to the shops, Ray’s slow-witted brother (Tony Way, as magnificently sad here as he was as Joffrey’s fool on “Game of Thrones”) is tormented by a sociopathic lodger who forces him to drink every last drop of booze in the house. Vomit ensues, and then violence, all while the tape record silently gathers evidence from the sidelines.
It’s a fetid slice of miserablism, but one that’s buoyed by the lack of metaphor. Sure, there’s an obvious symbolism to the caged animals that litter the Billingham’s home — and, in a subtler way, to the clever perspective of a shot where a row of nearby gravestones juts out between some concrete residential towers in the distant background — but life as Billingham remembers it here isn’t always structured around clear story beats. There’s a narrative structure to the film, but “Ray & Liz” is mostly dedicated towards dramatizing the space between spaces. It’s a film about the inertia that held Billingham’s world together, and the way that learned helplessness can feel like the most natural thing in the world to those who share it.
The second flashback is full of eventful happenings, as a tween-age Jason — perhaps traumatized by his previous experiences — wanders around an abandoned zoo and becomes unmoored from his family. But “Ray & Liz” is hypnotic for how it resists the easy takeaways, and focuses instead on how the Billinghams’ little bubble retains its shape in the face of grave events. “I don’t need money anyway,” Ray sputters towards the end, and you realize that he might actually believe that; it’s easier to stay down when you deny yourself the possibility of ever getting up.
It’s enough to make you wonder what happened between Ray and Liz over the years — what could have driven them apart, or what they hoped to find when they split. Perhaps Billingham already knows the reasons why, and doesn’t feel compelled to search for them. His film is elliptical to the point that it almost seems unfinished, like one of his mother’s jigsaw puzzles (another metaphor), and maybe that’s because he’s always had to conflate love with neglect. Whether “Ray & Liz” is moving in spite of that, or as a direct result, doesn’t really matter in the end.
“Ray & Liz” is now playing in theaters.