There are echoes of A Clockwork Orange, Small Faces, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Alan Clarke’s Scum and Made in Britain, and the work of Peter McDougall. Actually I would argue there are too many influences at work so that film fans may be a little distracted trying to spot them all. I can’t believe I am the only person who ended up mentally ticking boxes as references to and themes from other films appeared. What this does though is to give the film a fine pedigree to aim for as Mullan places it in the tradition of the above. He is being deliberately bold here, saying these are the films in whose company NEDS belongs, and this allows the audience to contextualise the more excessive aspects, and perhaps better understand them.
Conor McCaron plays the central character John McGill and boy does the camera love him. The film hangs on the audience believing his performance, that this bright and academically driven child can transform into a authority baiting, belligerent, young man who is capable of increasingly violent acts. If John McGill wasn’t so perfectly judged the whole premise would fall apart. McCaron is seething with unresolved and, to him, incomprehensible, anger. Even at the end of the film, when his actions are psychotic I still believed in McGill (and please believe me, this is not a casual use of the term, his actions by the end are psychotic). Actually comparisons with other ‘on-screen’ psychos such as Patrick Bateman, De Niro’s Travis Bickle, or even Tim Roth’s Trevor from Made in Britain are telling. They were beautiful to look at. Bodies honed to make them the fighting, and often killing, machines they become, but also making them seem glamorous. McGill is in no way glamorous. You look at his physique and you can see that this is not a boy who has been fighting since he was 10, unlike his brother and many of his peers and opponents. It is in the close ups that you get the character. The move between confusingly watching the world as it unfolds around him to the increasingly unrestrained menace that he exudes, is genuinely subtle, so much so as to make it surprising, but always believable. The threat of violence is in the eyes. I can’t wait to see what Conor McCaron does next, but even if he never appears on screen again he can always be proud of this. Few actors ever give such a performance.
Mullan himself gives an extraordinary turn as John’s alcoholic and abusive father and reminds us once more that he is the best Scottish actor around. His drunken ticks and mannerisms are exact and disturbing, and the menacing hold that he has over the family is at first eery, then horrific. His scenes with John are horrible, heartbreaking, and help the audience to understand part of what is at the core of John’s change in behaviour As the boy moves away from his mother, and aunt’s, apron strings he wants to impress, and be loved, by his father. It may be a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less than true.
NEDS is not without its flaws and problems, but it is a brave attempt to show an area of childhood that many are unaware of, or wish to be. Perhaps a stricter editor could have reigned in the more over the top moments, but those moments are part of the ambition of the film; part of what makes it fresh. It also must be said that it is incredibly brutal in places, but it needs to be. You have to see not only the actual violence, but the terrible results and Mullan is brave enough not to pull the camera away. It is here that many other ‘gang’ movies fail, often leading to the violence being either cartoonish or glamorised. This is something that NEDS cannot be accused of. Mullan’s real achievement is to show the appeal of gang culture as well as the terrible repercussions. When put alongside his other films Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters you realise that Peter Mullan is putting together a body of work to rival Leigh, Loach, Ramsay and Meadows as one of the best film makers around. I just hope we get to see his next work sooner rather than later.
*If I can make a suggestion; the credits are something you should stay for. Not only is it great to see those young actors smiling, it puts what you have seen into a bit of perspective.