I came to Neds - that's an acronym for Non-Educated Delinquents, by the way - with some horrible premonitions of Danny Dyer-ish geezers 'n' violence nonsense. Thankfully it's nothing of the sort - rather Neds recalls such coming-of-age-in-the-underclass films as City of God, La Haine and the first twenty minutes of Goodfellas.
Set in 1970s Glasgow (or rather the council estates of Cardonald, an outer suburb - we see little of Glasgow proper), we follow John McGill, the middle child in a poor but respectable working class family. A bright boy with good prospects, he is hampered at school by the reputation of his tearaway older brother Benny. Conversely, outside the school gates his brother's name gains him protection and respect; he becomes part of a gang, the Young Car-D and goes quite spectacularly off the rails (while never quite escaping his swotty past).
The plot sounds like it could be formulaic and yawnsome - the good-lad-gone-bad story is a staple of soap operas and teen dramas the world over. However writer/director Peter Mullan confounds these expectations through an extraordinary eye for period detail (he drew on his own, similar experiences growing up tough in Glasgow), bold characterisation and some riveting storytelling.
Mullan also shows some unexpected flourishes - a fight in a youth club where we hear only the cheesy glam-rock disco; a glue-induced hallucination of Christ on (and off) the cross. I'm intrigued to see what film he will take on next - it would be great to see a Peter Mullan western or caper movie, such is his visual flair and gift for black comedy.
At the heart of the film are the performances. The kids - including newcomer Conor McCarron in the lead - are without exception brilliant. The adults, who are played with a somewhat melodramatic tenor, are also very good. Mullen himself plays the hateful alcoholic father with uncanny verisimilitude - how much it's based on his own (alcoholic) father is difficult to say, but tellingly he can't quite bring himself to plunge the knife into the old man at the end of it all. Keep an eye out also for Gary Lewis, playing a teacher here but whom you may recognise as proto-ned McGloin from Scorsese's Gangs Of New York.
It's worth singling out McCarron's performance in the lead role. His transformation from Walter the Softy to Tommy DeVito is unstilted enough to be believable and is a great example of gradual unhingement; early in the film, on finding a knife, he has a mini Taxi Driver moment in front of the mirror but we can see through the bravura; the scene is echoed toward the end as he out-Bickles Bickle in an extraordinary and terrifying sequence (apparently based on a real event), gaffer-taping a kitchen knife to each hand and marching bare-chested into enemy territory. (As an aside I should also note that, as in Goodfellas, the casting director has done a cracking job in finding a young actor - Gregg Forrest - to convincingly play the lead as a primary-aged child).
If I was feeling uncharitable I could say that the story is a little baggy - for example the unnecessary subplot where McGill befriends an upper-middle class boy only to be subject to the prejudices of the Glaswegian bourgeoisie. Also, in the end there is little resolution - after what seems to be a finale of mighty confrontations (with his father, his erstwhile friends and a rival gang), there is a lengthy coda finishing with a somewhat pat (if unexpected) visual metaphor in a safari park. McGill's future remains uncertain and while he's experienced transcendence, exactly how much this has changed him is not clear. I'm not sure if this the lack of redemption is a good thing or not (indeed, it brings up broader questions of the duty of the storyteller to the audience - it's essentially a Bildungsroman without the Bildungs), but it certainly provokes thought long after viewing
Neds is undoubtedly a tough film. But it's also gripping, fascinating, stylishly directed and beautifully played. Therefore: