Glasgow, 1973. Though growing up on a rough estate with an alcoholic father (Mullan) and a thuggish brother, young John McGill (Forrest) is a bright boy looking to do well at school. A few years into his education though, a combination of social snobbery, the system and peer pressure leads McGill (McCarron) to give up trying to better himself and simply become what everyone expects of him, as he joins a local gang…
Neds, which stands for Non-Educated Delinquents, is a Scottish terms used to describe hoodlums. Different places have different names for them (see also ‘chavs’ or ‘pikeys’), and we’ve seen plenty of movies on the subject before, most notably from social realist filmmakers Ken Loach and Shane Meadows. In his third feature as writer-director, familiar Scottish actor Peter Mullan might tread on this well-worn ground, but he does so in a way which is often gripping, unexpectedly cinematic and with enough surreal flourishes for it to stand out.
Claiming that it’s more “personal” than autobiographical (admitting that some of the events actually happened to him), Neds draws heavily from Mullan’s youth during the ’70s as a self-described “passenger” in gang-culture. As such, although the movie is stylishly-shot, what’s most impressive is the flawless accuracy and attention to detail with which the likeable Glaswegian hardman captures both the period detail and the darker side of Glasgow. Whilst occasionally offsetting the grim, wincingly-brutal violence with moments of surprisingly funny situational humour (see the late comeback about touching lions), he circles around the themes of family, violence and religion, while asking a number of hard-hitting questions.
Do these kids have a choice? Are they screwed no matter what? Does potential mean nothing if you don’t have the conviction to see it through? To what extent does society and our immediate surroundings shape us? Instead of force-feeding us preachy answers, Mullan is more concerned with the capturing the story truthfully in a hugely-realistic manner, content to let it play out and let us draw our own conclusions. Given that we’re following a lonely boy in a rough retro Brit setting who falls in with a bad crowd, comparisons to Meadows’ This Is England are inevitable, while the work or former mentor Loach (in particular Sweet Sixteen and My Name Is Joe, which Mullan memorably starred in) is also a clear influence.
Although Neds doesn’t attempt to find beauty in small, everyday moments like Loach, it’s punctuated by several intense scenes and differentiated from other coming-of-age gang flicks by a few surreal moments. Scene-wise, there’s a few revolving around the turf-wars which spring to mind (see John escaping a knife-wielding gang into a random woman’s house – only to realise her son is part of said gang), but the most affecting are those which illustrate how much the formerly-sweet boy has changed (see Steven Robertson’s teacher hesitantly lashing his once-favourite pupil). While John’s actions are frequently malicious and, at times, irredeemable, it’s tragic to see his transformation from bight boy to violent delinquent, and we still want him to find redemption.
This is in no small part thanks to a stunning central performance from newcomer Conor McCarron, plucked from nowhere after his mother read an ad in her local newspaper. For the most part, John doesn’t always say a great deal, but McCarron conveys a depth of conflicting emotions and anger going on beneath the surface (as does the also-excellent Greg Forrest as the younger version). Similarly, the mostly unprofessional cast – drawn mostly from the estates the movie was shot on – are hugely naturalistic and convincing as the sort of hateful folk which populate the streets. Of course, Mullan is sublime in a small part as McGinn’s alcoholic Dad, while a bunch of his pals (David McKay, Louise Goodall, Gary Lewis) also pop up elsewhere.
As for the surrealist streak, while a moment of post-glue-sniffing tripping (where John has off-his-head visions of Christ) feels like a slight misstep, it’s the ending which will prove most divisive. Simultaneously brave, complex and haunting, it’s a climax which is open to interpretation as to what it really means, meaning that those who prefer a clear-cut full-stop will leave unsatisfied. On the other hand though, for those who don’t mind endings which invite debate as to their real meaning, it’s a beautiful and open-ended way to leave the story, which will have like-minded film fans arguing over how they read it.
Familiar Glasgow actor Peter Mullan treads on familiar ground here, but does so in a way which is often gripping, always truthful and unexpectedly stylish. The surreal moments will leave the mainstream viewers unsatisfied, but they (ironically) help Neds stand out from the crowd.