Glasgow, the 1970s. The NEDS of the title are the rampaging youths (dubbed Non-Educated Delinquents) whose gang wars spill over into everyday life, tainting and corrupting anyone who comes into contact with them.
Peter Mullan’s third film as director (after Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters) is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale of a promising young student (newcomer Conor McCarron) who is sucked into violence and knife crime despite his best attempts to stay aloof.
His brother is a notorious thug. His father is a violent, wife-beating drunk. His teacher sees him as a swot to be humiliated in class. Local tearaways view him with suspicion, contempt and, when they discover his family history, awe. Naturally, he becomes seduced by peer pressure and gang culture.
As relevant now as it was 40 years ago, NEDS focuses on the death of innocence. John McGill (McCarron) appears destined for a life in the gutter despite his academic gifts and acumen. The temptations are all around him. And as his reflected glory increases, so does his need to prove himself in the eyes of his contemporaries.
A dark odyssey into the heart of an urban nightmare, NEDS is a companion piece to past offerings like Alan Clarke’s The Firm and Pat Holden’s Awaydays. Whilst both previous titles focused on the tribalism associated with football hooliganism, NEDS revolves around the Neanderthal mob culture of inner-city experience.
Mullan largely cast his film with non-actors, and it pays off magnificently. McCarron, just 17, is a revelation in the manner of Martin (Sweet Sixteen) Compston. He undergoes a sinister transformation from Jekyll to Hyde to back again, first reluctant then all-embracing as he comes to accept and prefer his new-found notoriety.
Mullan himself appears in a handful of scenes as an alcoholic patriarch and brings a dead-eyed sense of menace to the family home. His command of his subject is complete, even if one fantasy sequence – John sniffs glue and has a whacked-out meeting with Jesus – unbalances the film completely.
Mullan has the courage to confront knife crime and gang warfare head-on. He presents John’s downward spiral as an inevitability but the boy’s acceptance and evolution of his role is shocking. A scene in which he tapes wicked knives to his hands before striding, bare-chested, into the night to confront his nemeses is memorable for all the wrong reasons…
Conor McCarron collected the best actor award at last year’s San Sebastian Film Festival and seems assured of a bright future if he cares to continue acting. His is a star-making performance of rare intensity and gut-wrenching believability.