Peter Mullan, better known as an actor, is quietly making a name for himself as a writer-director. Neds is his third film, a traumatic coming-of-age drama set in the badlands of early 1970s Glasgow that tips its hat both to the pained social realism of Ken Loach and the exuberant gang violence of Scorsese and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
It stars newcomer Conor McCarron as John, a bright teenager who wants to do well at school and escape the long shadow of his tearaway older brother. For a while he does, but slowly the vortex of peer pressure sucks him down into the dead-end rumbles of rival Neds (Non-educated delinquents). Mullan, capturing the period superbly, makes almost a test case out of John, the test being nature versus nurture. Will John embrace his legacy of violence (his father, played by Mullan, is an abusive drunk) or will he forge an identity independent of his upbringing? McCarron, in a sensational role, makes us care very deeply about this interior struggle, and an eager young cast supports him all the way. They're like The Bay City Rollers with flick-knives. What undermines the film is a weakness for crashing symbolism, as was the case in Mullan's excellent debut Orphans. It's an oddity in his work that he lures us into grittily realistic drama only to dilute its potency with outlandish non-realistic imagery. The humanity and seriousness of his film-making, however, have made him an unignorable force for good.