Writer-director Peter Mullan crafts a stunning, brutal portrait of a bright youth’s descent into gang crime in “Neds.” An eight-year break after his knockout “The Magdalene Sisters” proves not to have dulled Mullan’s continuing skill at delivering total movie experiences that combine vivid social critique with astonishing performances by virtual unknowns and felicitous cinematic technique. Distribs must count on rave critical response to alert auds, but pic is too rough a sit to draw more than middling returns.
A Scottish actor of uncommon range and impact, Mullan has managed as a filmmaker to reinvigorate the musty tradition of kitchen-sink realism with a heightened theatricality, an unflinching view of humanity’s tendency for violence and a built-in anger that recalls the best of the British Free Cinema movement of the ’60s. In the new film, he encapsulates all of these touches into a withering, intensely focused character study that will haunt viewers sturdy enough to take it in.
Fresh-scrubbed John McGill (played as a young lad by Gregg Forrest) graduates from a Glasgow grade school with top-flight grades in 1972, but he’s warned by roughneck youth Canta (Gary Milligan) that daily brutalization awaits him at his new middle school.Once there, John realizes he’s been shunted to a class level below his academic aptitude, merely because headmaster Gallagher (Laurie Ventry) doesn’t trust any male related to notorious gang leader Benny McGill (Joe Szula), John’s older brother, who’s been expelled from school. On the other hand, John feels pressured to not project his considerable intelligence, as when one teacher mock-berates him for having “the temerity to rise above the mediocrity of (his) peers.”
This sets up expectations of another study of young victims of a cruel system a la “The Magdalene Sisters,” but what’s so effective and ultimately so upsetting about “Neds” (short for “Non-Educated Delinquents”) is that John (played as an older boy by Conor McCarron for the bulk of the film) resists victimization and opts for a more unexpected means of surviving this jungle.
Mullan methodically dramatizes John’s changes, which begin when his new pal, rich boy Julian (Martin Bell), is forced by his snooty mom to stop spending time with working-class John. When John sees he can trade on Benny’s rep as the hardest Ned of all and win favor with a gang led by Fergie (John Joe Hay), something clicks in the lad. Crucially, Mullan doesn’t psychologize or explain John’s Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation into a thuggish brute, but more effectively shows it by means of extraordinarily staged scenes and sequences that steadily grow more violent.
Mullan appears at brief but stark intervals as John’s borderline-insane dad, so sadistic and besotted with booze that the family grows silent any time he enters a room; the relationship between this father and the son who ultimately surpasses him for monstrosity builds to a payoff of tremendous force. That John grows too crazily violent even for his fellow gangbangers signals “Neds'” fearlessness in pursuing its dramatic aims, on through to its strangely beautiful and unexpected ending.
McCarron uses his baby-face innocence to surprise his foes, as well as the viewer. The role’s sheer complexity and lengthy screen time rep a considerable challenge that McCarron meets and then surpasses with memorably quiet intensity. Casting is brilliant, with an array of faces (and sometimes thickly accented, and subtitled, Glaswegian voices) that look so authentically rooted in the pic’s setting that “Neds” verges at points on the edge of documentary reality. This is further supported by lenser Roman Osin’s intentionally dated color scheme and production designer Mark Leese’s keen eye for period detail and class differences. Composer Craig Armstrong’s underscore is brief and to the point.