Like a Celtic Ken Loach, the invaluable Peter Mullan has become a passionate chronicler of underprivilege, class struggle and religious oppression. In 2003's The Magdalene Sisters, he highlighted abused girls in Ireland; now he turns to battered boys in Scotland with NEDS, a stringent street psychodrama in which brutality is an infection and every male is a carrier.
Set in 1970s Glasgow (where both Mullan and I grew up, a decade or so apart), the film clings protectively to John McGill, a smart, working-class kid (played by Gregg Forrest as a 10-year-old and Conor McCarron as a teenager) who is determined to choose a different path from his delinquent older brother, Benny (Joe Szula). But intelligence is no savior when the cards are this stacked: Benny's hell-raising reputation may earn John the respect of the local yobs, but it also guarantees the contempt of his teachers, whose acidic sarcasm and leather straps underline their low expectations.
Little solace is found at home, where Dad (Mullan, reportedly modeling his own father) is a belligerent drunk and Mum (Louise Goodall) a loving but ineffective barrier. And when John's friendship with a more affluent student is stamped out by the boy's class-conscious mother, his slide into the embrace of the local thugs has the sickening tang of inevitability.
Bleak, vicious and almost entirely without hope, NEDS (supposedly an acronym for "non-educated delinquents," but that's a recent invention) develops a near-malignant energy that the brief stabs of humor barely pierce. Thankfully Mullan — aided by Roman Osin's fearless, quicksilver cinematography — surrounds the blood and bashing with a Glasgow rarely seen on screen. Verdant spaces soften the lines of harshly utilitarian housing blocks, and leafy sidewalks screen roaming packs of savage youths. (The city's name means 'Dear green place,' but watching films like Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher or Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch, you'd never know it.)
Just as authentic, if more uncomfortably so, is Mullan's depiction of classroom sadism: the ruthless organization by test scores, creating a visible map of success and failure; the black-cloaked masters whipping upturned palms with fringed leather belts. American audiences may suspect exaggeration — and Mullan cheekily provides a surrogate in the shape of John's horrified aunt (a terrific Marianna Palka), who arrives from America on a particularly eventful evening — but I can reassure them. I have felt the sting of those belts myself.
Mostly avoiding religious undertones (aside from an ill-advised, glue-induced hallucination during which John, a Catholic, imagines himself grappling with a crucified Jesus), Mullan powerfully re-creates a turbulent time of Tory rule and trade-union unrest. Monty Python is on the telly and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band is on the soundtrack, while the creamy vowels of BBC announcers contrast sharply with the harsh consonants of John's environment. (The film is subtitled, but unhelpfully transliterates instead of translating, so words like "greeting" [crying] and "doss house" [homeless shelter] may remain mysterious.)
With its poetically surreal ending and occasional hiccups of melodrama — one scene between John and his father is an emotional firecracker — NEDS is finally less about gang culture than about the making of a murderer. As John rampages shirtless through the nighttime streets, kitchen knives strapped to both wrists, the image finds an echo in countless action movies and video games. This time, however, it doesn't feel trite: It feels real. (Recommended) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.