While it has shut down or delayed most major studio productions, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a resurgence of B-movies and exploitation pictures. Short films, that are predictable, quick to make, and only require a small cast, have thrived in the depleted cinema economy, whether they are released directly to cinemas, or directly to streaming services. At the same time, B-pictures and exploitation pictures are usually about the pleasures of catharsis – of seeing a protagonist, usually a white man, pushed to breaking point by an unbearable string of circumstances. Since catharsis has been hard to come by during the pandemic, especially in the United States, B-pictures have taken on an increasingly important and restorative role.
While all the B-pictures released during the pandemic have refracted the pandemic in some way, none have captured the structures of feeling around the pandemic quite like Nobody, which was filmed during the early days of the pandemic, and then edited into its final shape during the height of the pandemic, before pushed back from the later part of 2020 to early 2021.In this late pandemic period (at least in the United States) we’re on the verge of quasi-period pieces that are set at the height of the outbreak, such as Doug Liman’s Locked Down, but it may be that exploitation films like Nobody provide a more vivid vision of how it actually felt to live through it all for future generations. It may be, too, that B-pictures continue to thrive for years to come as a belated coping mechanism, just as we’re still seeing the long shadow of September 11 in the superhero machinations that continue to dominate cinema.
On the face of it, Nobody follows a similar structure to many other exploitation films of its ilk. The main character, the “nobody,” is an old-school everyman, Hutch Mansell, played by Bob Odenkirk. When Hutch experiences a home invasion, he has the opportunity to kill both of the invaders, but instead opts to let them go, in order to save his son’s life. While he made the smart move, he feels increasingly emasculated by his decision, especially since he’s pretty disempowered in most other parts of his life as well. He therefore embarks upon a revenge rampage – first against the criminals, then against hooligans at large, in the manner of the Death Wish franchise, which finally brings him up against the full force of the Russian Mafia.
There are several features that indelibly cement this familiar formula in the specific sensations of the pandemic. First, and most dramatically, Hutch never goes outside – or perhaps more accurately, there’s no clear sense of an outside to begin with. When we do glimpse them, all the outside spaces in the film are vacant voids where time feels especially pregnant and pressing. With Christopher Lloyd playing Hutch’s father, David, the film often harkens back to the empty spaces of Back to the Future, such as the nocturnal carpark where Marty McFly first drove the Delorean, or the tract of empty land where his housing estate of the 1950s would eventually be constructed. Like Back to the Future, Nobody often lingers on these empty spaces to displace the present moment into an uncanny loop between future and past.
Second, Hutch’s daily routine means that he never truly goes outside – or feels comfortable in his own skin while he’s outside. In a condensed opening sequence, we cycle through his week, as he runs for the bus, forgets to take out the garbage, and grows more exhausted with every moment. The palette is sombre, muted and grey, and the sense of oppression is overwhelming, to the point where this monotonous routine is more viscerally confronting than any home invasion. In fact, the home invasion is almost welcome, since by reiterating the distinction between inside and outside, it affirms that an outside exists in the first place. Metaphorically, Hutch, and the film, long for the virus to invade the house, and have done with it, welcoming the most traumatic implications of an outside so long as that outside exists.
This fixation on an elusive outside space turns the prospect of genuinely being outdoors into a truly fantastic prospect, as also occurred in Host, the best horror film to come out of the pandemic. It also gives the beats and tics of the rampage film, which are already pretty intense, an even more hyperbolised quality, turning Hutch into an almost parodic everyman. We learn that Hutch is a veteran, but not a regular veteran, since he was in the army as an auditor, rather than a “real soldier.” To make matters worse, both his brother and father were real soldiers, meaning he’s the beta male in his family. In a humiliating early scene, Hutch’s son has to write a report about a veteran, and turns to his grandfather and uncle instead of his father. Even when Hutch tells him his story, his son tells him that he doesn’t really care.
If that weren’t bad enough, Hutch is just as emasculated by his family-in-law and his local community. His wife Rebecca, played by Connie Nielsen, works as a successful real estate agent, giving her a particular purview over their own house and home. Hutch works for Rebecca’s father and brother, as an auditor, where he’s always made to seem second-best, and treated with mild pity and contempt. Meanwhile, everyone he meets after the home invasion reproaches him for not killing the two criminals when he had the chance – and these reproaches become more ridiculous as they proceed. The first responding police officer gives him a hard time, then his neighbour makes fun of him, while showing off his new Porsche. Finally, his brother-in-law gives him a new gun after mockingly pulling it on him first, at work.
By the end of this first act, then, Hutch is nothing but a locus of emasculation and humiliation. Over the next two acts, Nobody revels in the cathartic pull of B-movies – the sheer accumulation of humiliation that makes the payoff so satisfying. The fact that this emasculation is so strong also indicates that the payoff will be campy – a tribute to the reflexive pleasures of genre, and the catharsis that it brings. After all, one of the comforting elements of the B-picture, especially during a pandemic, is its familiarity and predictability, as well as its own comic and ironic awareness of precisely those features. It’s here that Odenkirk’s role as Saul Goodman, the comic counterpoint in Breaking Bad, comes into full play. Just as Saul contoured Walter White as he veered into the ridiculous, so Hutch replays that dialectic between Saul and Walter in a single character, at every moment of his rampage.
In essense, Hutch plays as a parodic virus-denier – the everyman who has been forced into total domesticity by the pandemic. He never leaves domestic space, since his workplace is an extension of his wife’s capital, meaning that he never truly goes outside until his rampage. Conversely, he starts his rampage in one of the most precarious spaces for a pandemic audience – public transit. Taking a bus through the city, in the middle of the night, he comes across a gang of hooligans, a viral presence intent upon infecting the bus, and beats them to within an inch of their lives. Again, we see a certain muscular Republican fantasy of virus domination in public space playing out here, with just the right amount of comic absurdity. You could say the pleasure of Nobody partly lies in seeing Republican misinformation, which has proven so damaging to the country, shoehorned into the absurd pleasure of a B-picture.
This parodic fantasy continues with the revelation that Hutch was a CIA hitman in a former life. He’s tried, for years, to repress his violent instincts, right up to and including the home invasion itself, but the resulting emasculation and humiliation proves too much, and he starts to fall back upon his former skills. In other words, he goes from being one kind of “nobody,” a faceless CIA assassin, to a different kind of “nobody,” a suburban drone. All of us experienced a waning of identity during the pandemic, a gradual sense of anonymity, so all of us, especially those in extended lockdown, longed for the sudden surge of character that Hutch receives here. Watching Hutch realise that his former nobody was actually a profound somebody is like realising, in lockdown, how much we built character through action and interaction. While he might draw residually on Saul Goodman, Hutch doesn’t become a character per se here until his revenge spree – he’s characterised by action and interaction, much as the pandemic made us realise how much we need these things to be characters too.
Yet the film doesn’t entirely allow Hutch to step back into regular action either. The first encounter, on the bus, turns out to be the most visceral, forcing Hutch to rely on his fists and his body. Thereafter, however, the action gravitates towards the gun-fu of the John Wick franchise, until the two films seem to be sharing a common universe. We move towards large-scale shoot-ups in which Hutch and his allies take on massive hordes of the Russian mafia, as Naishuller starts to draw more heavily upon the innovations of Hardcore Henry, his first feature, which was filmed entirely as a first-person shooter. The second half of Nobody is also filmed with the same kinetic fluidity and propulsive flow as a first-person shooter, except that Hutch is even more adept at pivoting at speed, changing directions abruptly, and getting up off the ground, placing the viewer in the position of an especially dexterous and agile gamer.
At the very moment at which Hutch truly glimpses an outside, on the bus, he’s thrust back into virtual space, converging the vitality of B-movies during the pandemic with the vitality of gaming during the pandemic. The more that Hutch tries to break back into the one moment of hand-to-hand combat, the more he sinks back into a first-person shooter, culminating with the baroque conclusion, in which he buys back his father-in-law’s warehouse and turns it into an enormous booby-trap. If Hutch welcomed the opening home invasion, then he goes one step further here, enticing the Russian Mafia into an even more extravagant invasion in an attempt to once again differentiate between inside and outside. In effect, Hutch creates an impregnable space so that he can finally break out of it, and experience the outside again. Instead, the sheer hyperbole of this final sequence erodes the outside, and renders it virtual.
Yet this fleeting glimpse of an outside simply makes Nobody more compulsively rewatchable, as the film acknowledges in its comic final scene, which presents us with an arch vision of the post-pandemic world as a fantasy in and of itself. After burning down his own house, and destroying his father-in-law’s factory, Hutch sets his sights on a bigger house with a private pond – an ongoing testament to a restored outside world. Just as he’s about to close the deal, however, he receives a call, from the Russian Mafia, via his estate agent, to warn that another home invasion is imminent. In a last arch note, Hutch and Rebecca politely enquire about whether the basement is big enough to weather the onslaught that is presumably on its way. Even with their private pond on the horizon, lockdown is always imminent, but the twist is that they’ve learned to enjoy lockdown as their own B-movie, as a form of delayed pleasure that makes catharsis even more precious, as a renewed attention to the joys of being outside.