Whatever your expectations of Peter Mullan’s latest film NEDS are, prepare to have them confounded. You look at the poster and the tagline ‘Everyone Need To Be Taught a Lesson’ and you’ll likely think; gangs, knives, fantastic amounts of swearing, hopefully some dark humour, and, if your lucky, the possibility of redemption. All of these are to be found, but this is a Peter Mullan film. Things are never going to be as they first seem.

There are so many shifts in this film that you’ll leave breathless, and likely speechless. The shifts are sometimes subtle when they appear to be obvious. What I mean by this is the scenes you think are key in moving the story on are almost always preceded by other, smaller, scenes that only reveal themselves after later consideration. There is a lovely use of lighting as well. When the film opens it is summer sun that casts a golden hue on everything, but soon scenes take place after dark and in cold, unlit, corners. Craig Armstrong’s music also influences the mood without ever intruding on the film, in places reminding me of Tangerine Dream’s film work.

There are echoes of A Clockwork Orange, Small Faces, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Alan Clarke’s Scum and Made in Britain, and the work of Peter McDougall. Actually I would argue there are too many influences at work so that film fans may be a little distracted trying to spot them all. I can’t believe I am the only person who ended up mentally ticking boxes as references to and themes from other films appeared. What this does though is to give the film a fine pedigree to aim for as Mullan places it in the tradition of the above. He is being deliberately bold here, saying these are the films in whose company NEDS belongs, and this allows the audience to contextualise the more excessive aspects, and perhaps better understand them.

Conor McCaron plays the central character John McGill and boy does the camera love him. The film hangs on the audience believing his performance, that this bright and academically driven child can transform into a authority baiting, belligerent, young man who is capable of increasingly violent acts. If  John McGill wasn’t so perfectly judged the whole premise would fall apart. McCaron is seething with unresolved and, to him, incomprehensible, anger. Even at the end of the film, when his actions are psychotic I still believed in McGill (and please believe me, this is not a casual use of the term, his actions by the end are psychotic). Actually comparisons with other ‘on-screen’ psychos such as Patrick Bateman, De Niro’s Travis Bickle, or even Tim Roth’s Trevor from Made in Britain are telling. They were beautiful to look at. Bodies honed to make them the fighting, and often killing, machines they become, but also making them seem glamorous. McGill is in no way glamorous. You look at his physique and you can see that this is not a boy who has been fighting since he was 10, unlike his brother and many of his peers and opponents. It is in the close ups that you get the character. The move between confusingly watching the world as it unfolds around him to the increasingly unrestrained menace that he exudes, is genuinely subtle, so much so as to make it surprising, but always believable. The threat of violence is in the eyes. I can’t wait to see what Conor McCaron does next, but even if he never appears on screen again he can always be proud of this. Few actors ever give such a performance.

Mullan himself gives an extraordinary turn as John’s alcoholic and abusive father and reminds us once more that he is the best Scottish actor around. His drunken ticks and mannerisms are exact and disturbing, and the menacing hold that he has over the family is at first eery, then horrific. His scenes with John are horrible, heartbreaking, and help the audience to understand part of what is at the core of John’s change in behaviour. As the boy moves away from his mother, and aunt’s, apron strings he wants to impress, and be loved, by his father. It may be a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less than true.

The actors who play the teachers should not be over looked. Everyone of them are similar enough that you can believe that there is a them and us relationship established early in the kids school lives, but they are individual enough that they have their own characters. Standouts are Steven Robertson as Mr Bonetti who seems proud of the young John, yet also strangely jealous, David McKay as the summer school teacher in one of the only purely sympathetic, male, roles, and particularly Gary Lewis as the head of middle school whose world weary views of the playground and those who inhabit it are at the same time comical and depressing.

But the stars of the film are the kids, all of whom are first time actors. Mullan and his brother Lenny held an open audition and the roles are all filled from those who turned up. You forget about this completely when watching the film, and it is hats off to Mullan that he has managed to extract such performances. It may be a lucky break when your leading actor turns out to be as good as McCaron, but they are all believable and that can’t be a coincidence. Mullan has proved himself once again to be a great director of actors, both experienced and novice. These people on screen are completely recognisable to me as people that I was at school with and I can’t give higher praise than that. Here is the trailer to NEDS:

NEDS is not without its flaws and problems, but it is a brave attempt to show an area of childhood that many are unaware of, or wish to be. Perhaps a stricter editor could have reigned in the more over the top moments, but those moments are part of the ambition of the film; part of what makes it fresh. It also must be said that it is incredibly brutal in places, but it needs to be. You have to see not only the actual violence, but the terrible results and Mullan is brave enough not to pull the camera away. It is here that many other ‘gang’ movies fail, often leading to the violence being either cartoonish or glamorised. This is something that NEDS cannot be accused of. Mullan’s real achievement is to show the appeal of gang culture as well as the terrible repercussions. When put alongside his other films Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters you realise that Peter Mullan is putting together a body of work to rival Leigh, Loach, Ramsay and Meadows as one of the best film makers around. I just hope we get to see his next work sooner rather than later.

*If I can make a suggestion; the credits are something you should stay for. Not only is it great to see those young actors smiling, it puts what you have seen into a bit of perspective.

NEDS was released theatrically in the UK on January 18, 2011. There are no plans for a US release – yet.

Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae.

Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.

Peter Mullan and the true story behind NEDS