Movie Review: Neds
This brutal evocation of '70s Glasgow is anything but subtle
Director Peter Mullan’s Neds is not a movie that will do much for Scotland’s self-annointed status as ‘The best small country in the world’. True, the events of the film take place in the distant era of the early 1970’s, but while times and fashion may have changed (dramatically so; nobody swaggering through the rougher enclaves of Glasgow sporting burgundy bell-bottoms could expect to last five minutes these days) the culture of pointless, brutal violence it depicts remains alive and well in 2011. We may have learned to laugh at tracksuited caricatures brandishing Buckfast bottles on comedy sketch shows, but the fact is that this subculture of – as the film terms them – Non-Educated Delinquents is a far bigger part of the Scottish psyche than any number of rolling glens, enlightenment thinkers or poems from Burns’ pen.
From a Scottish perspective, then, Mullan’s first film in seven years is a significant one that addresses a well-known societal blight. How it will play elsewhere, though, is open to question; comparisons to the work of Shane Meadows seem inevitable, but while Neds may be many things, it is certainly not This Is Scotland.
The film tells the story of John McGill (played with naturalistic intensity by newcomer Conor McCarron), a promising Glaswegian schoolboy with an apparently-bright future. From the off, however, it’s clear that circumstances are conspiring against John, both at home – where his alcoholic father (played by Mullan) rolls in belligerently drunk every night – and at school, where even the teachers take the piss out of you for having the temerity to rub braincells together. His only friend is a middle-class public-schoolboy, who soon becomes embarrassed by John’s rough ways and drops him like the proverbial hot potato, initiating his descent into Glasgow’s gangland underbelly, where his older brother Benny is a feared and respected figure.
Neds makes for grim and gritty viewing, there’s no doubt about that. Glasgow – painted in an oppressive palette of municipal greys and deep, mossy greens – has never looked uglier than it does in this film, and that’s saying something. The people who inhabit it, meanwhile, constantly navigate their way over a literal knife-edge where violence is always a wrong word or misread look away. In one early scene, John is threatened with a stabbing for simply reading a book; later on, he interrupts his first sexual encounter to go and drop a paving slab on someone’s head.
These moments are portrayed with a realism that is true to life – they are vicious, mindless and short-lived – but it is their after-effects, the physical and mental scars that they incur, which are lingered on the longest: one character in particular, who begins the film with a full face of skin, ends it as a beef-witted patchwork of reconstituted tissue – a truly harrowing transformation.
Amidst the brutality, however, there is a streak of wicked Scottish humour that runs throughout. Neds is surprisingly – often disarmingly – funny, and frequently finds comedy in the blackest of places, whether it’s a girl inking her leg with marker pen to mask the hole in her tights, or a gang member bemoaning the difficulty of carving the letter ‘S’ with a kitchen knife. Little moments like these surely come from Mullan’s own working-class Glaswegian upbringing, and thanks to the work of a remarkable supporting cast of first-time actors, they lend a further level of authenticity to proceedings.
Yet for all its merits, Neds is bedevilled by some serious third-act flaws. Mullan uses a lot of religious imagery, but when a glue-fuelled John gets into a punch-up with Jesus (yes, the Jesus), it feels jarring and discordant, like a scene from a completely different film. Nor can the director resist a spot of finger-pointing to explain John’s transition from bookish student to chib-wielding psychopath.
The archetypal unhappy home life, bastard headmasters and middle-class snobbery are rather too familiar, however, and serve only to preclude John from shouldering any of the blame himself. Perhaps society really is entirely at fault here, but the film never truly manages to convince you. It’s all wrapped up in the surreal final scene, which we won’t spoil for you except to say: don’t worry if you’re not adept at picking up cinematic subtext, because Mullan applies his with a sledgehammer.
But while the plotting is predictable and its conclusions somewhat telegraphed, Neds is still two-thirds of a great movie. It is sharply-written, brilliantly-acted and has a knack of ramping up tension masterfully: during one throwaway scene involving a crossbow and a carload of thugs, the swelling sense of dread made my cinema seat feel like a dentist’s chair.
Those pesky third-act issues aside, Neds is all at once gut-wrenching, thought-provoking, hilarious and terrifying, and if it ultimately cannot quite answer all of the questions it raises, well, at least it bothered raising them in the first place.