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--in English, but subtitled due to the thick accents and copious slang--feels less written and performed then overheard, and the brawls have a rough, messy quality reminiscent of Scorsese's Mean Streets.
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.