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by Daniel Kelly

"Don't mess with the NEDS."
4 stars

Peter Mullan’s “NEDS” isn’t an uplifting watch, but it does deliver some of the most authentically upsetting cinema of 2011 so far. Set in the seventies, the picture uses gang based hooliganism as its backdrop, focusing primarily on the self-destructive attitude of a once promising young teen. The film is staggeringly violent in spots, but thanks to both a brilliant central performance from Conor McCarron and Mullan’s well written script, the film’s more visceral elements don’t overpower the production at large.

John McGill (Conor McCarron) is a gifted student, but also the product of a severely dysfunctional home. His father (played by director Peter Mullan) is a vile alcoholic who torments his family on a nightly basis, whilst sibling Benny (Joe Szula) has become a NED (non-educated delinquent) of some notoriety within the local community. Eventually worn down by the low expectations of those around him, John forgoes his academic ambitions, instead using his time for less savoury pursuits. As a whirlwind of violence, drugs and alcohol begins to destroy John’s hope of a decent future, his family try to interject, afraid that John might turn out to be just another NED.

Conor McCarron’s performance is a case of less meaning more, the young and inexperienced actor handing in a turn beyond his years. A largely silent piece of acting, McCarron’s contribution works on the back of the thespian’s oddly expressive face; Mullan utilizing this wonderfully to help communicate the character’s inner turmoil to the audience. Despite the horrific nature of John’s downward spiral, it’s hard not to sympathies with him, Mullan’s natural depiction of Conor’s tragic home life and his presentation of the thug filled schools highlighting perfectly the hopelessness of John’s situation. “NEDS” is clearly interested in exploring the sociological implications of “the self-fulfilling prophecy”, and it does so effectively, Mullan’s depressing narrative beautifully showcasing how easy it is to fall victim to circumstance.

“NEDS” is a brutal film, Mullan using these brash moments of carnage to paint a graphic picture of gang violence in Scotland. Apparently Mullan walked within such dubious circles during his youth, an autobiographical touch that almost certainly injects “NEDS” with more realism than it would have otherwise boasted. The picture never aims for cheap shock factor, Mullan always using the ghastly violence to help further illustrate John’s dissent into chaos. Some scenes are unbelievably aggressive, one in which John batters an enemy before delivering a crushing final blow is particularly appalling, but Mullan knows how to wield it within a worthy plotline, granting “NEDS” artistic justification for its sickening mayhem.

Mullan isn’t afraid to apply more traditional genre beats to the tale, several key segments playing out purely for thrills. There’s a brief but tumultuous home invasion clip that helps solidify the dangers at hand, whilst a few doses of street warfare excite thanks to the energy supplied by the actors. “NEDS” also has its fair share of haunting imagery, one of the most notable examples being a slowly maddening John gliding through the council estate, with a pair of butcher knives strapped to his hands. It’s a powerful visual to behold, and not the only one “NEDS” offers.

At 124 minutes the production is somewhat overstretched, meandering towards its ambiguous climax without the cutting ruthlessness of the previous two acts. There are also obvious tonal blunders, such as a bizarre scene in which a drugged up John is attacked by a Jesus figure, the sequence seemingly looking for black laughs, but finding few. When “NEDS” tries to be overtly amusing it fails, the movie’s hostile themes not combining well with stabs at funny business. The thick Glaswegian accents evidenced in “NEDS” are another point of advisement; if you have access to subtitles you might very well need them.

“NEDS” depicts an ugly yet engrossing journey, refusing to sugarcoat its central thesis for the benefit of anyone. Mullan has created something pretty special here, and even if it suffers from a rough around the edges sensibility, the picture deserves a viewership on the back of its courageously truthful screenplay. “NEDS” won’t be for everyone, but those able to tolerate harsh reality shouldn’t pass it up.

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originally posted: 05/30/11 22:47:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 23-Aug-2011



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