Peter Mullan's NEDS opens in Glasgow, circa 1972; young John McGill (Gregg Forrest) is graduating from primary school, at the top of his class. His mother and sister beam; pictures are taken. The nostalgic good cheer lasts all of about thirty seconds, until John is threatened--in harsh, vivid detail--by an older kid who'll soon be a classmate. John's not sure what to do about it, so he goes to find his older brother Benny, a tough dropout. Benny and his buddy show the tough kid what's what--and then bring him to John's window.
The film's title is shorthand for Non-Educated Delinquents; when the film begins, Benny would be classified as such, and by the end, so will his younger brother. John is, initially, a model kid: he works hard in school, in spite of the taunts of the other kids, the influence of his older brother, and the indifference of his father (played by Mullan). Mr. McGill doesn't look like much, but he's a horror; everyone tenses up when he walks in the room, jumps when he opens a drawer, and dreads the moment when, in a drunken haze, he'll start screaming at their mother from the bottom of the stairs.
Mullan's approach to this material is matter-of-fact, but not flat--he's not showy, but he gets results. A venerable character actor (his credits include the Red Riding trilogy and Trainspotting), he broke through as a director a few years back with The Magdalene Sisters; he's one of those filmmakers who clearly still thinks like an actor, and is more interested in performance than overblown technique, though he accomplishes a couple of nice effects (including passing several months within a lighting change). He's got real skill at creating unsettling scenes; there is, for example, an attack at a dance, which turns into a chase, which then eerily reverses itself, and then takes a comic turn that couldn't be less expected (or effective).
John is played as a teen by a tremendous young actor named Conor McCarron, who gets both halves of the performance right--his tentativeness as the kind student, and his bitterness as the young tough. It's scary, how easily the character (and the actor) makes the switch. But it's somewhat understandable, considering what he sees and how he's treated, both before and after. What Mullan puts across--and McCarron plays to the fullest--is the sheer seductiveness of it, the pleasure he takes in his toughness, the taunting way he begins to carry himself. Later, we are haunted by the way his eyes seem to have just gone dead.
The notion of acting out simply as an act of belonging to something is not a new one (it's been in juvenile delinquent films for 50-plus years), but it's seldom been conveyed so convincingly. The casual gutter dialogue feels less written and performed then overheard, and the brawls have a rough, messy quality reminiscent of Scorsese's Mean Streets.
The anamorphic 2.35:1 image isn't exactly a dazzler, but that's to be expected--the film has a low-down, grungy look (matching both the period and the subject matter). Colors are somewhat washed out and grain is occasionally heavy, and the picture looks occasionally over-compressed, but the video presentation mostly matches the theatrical exhibition and (clearly) the vision of director Mullan and cinematographer Roman Osin.
NEDS is a quiet, introverted picture, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital track reflects that; you'll have to crank your volume to make out what they're saying, and then it's still difficult (see below). As a result, the primary action is mostly found to the center channel, but the surrounds are frequently engaged for subtle but effective environmental work (in street and schoolyard scenes), with occasional showcase sequences like the firework scene.
The English subtitles are not optional, but that's probably for the best; though the picture is in English, the thick accents and copious slang render it almost indecipherable (to these American ears, anyway) without them. A 2.0 stereo track is also available.
Disappointingly, the only supplements are a pair of Deleted Scenes. The first, "Baseball" (8:09), is a pretty funny set piece, though it would have certainly slowed the picture down (and shifted focus for a considerable period of screen time); it works better in a much-abbreviated version in the final cut. The second, "Conversation with Brother" (4:09), is a worthwhile addition, though a bit tough to understand due to the lack of subtitles.
For such a confident picture, NEDS takes some real stumbles in its third act; it has a couple more endings than it needs, including a nod toward surrealism that doesn't really play. John's relationship with his brother is also never fully developed, which is a shame--we get the feeling that part of the reason John pops so easily is because of the cruelty in his blood, but Mullan's screenplay only really connects that to his father. Even if the film drags a bit and holds its beats too long, we must give Mullan due credit for giving the narrative enough breathing room. He's not interested in easy answers, or pat resolutions. It's a smarter movie than that; it knows that for some people, once you take a turn, there's no going back.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.