Peter Mullan appears in only a handful of scenes in his excellent third feature, Neds, as the brooding, ferocious father of the film's troubled protagonist, but his ominous presence can be felt from his first appearance, wherein we don't even get a full glimpse of his face, until his final cathartic moment. Unfolding over the glut of the 1970s in a piss-poor section of Glasgow, Mullan's latest charts the precocious beginnings and grim decline of John McGill (Conor McCarron, and Gregg Forrest as the younger incarnation), a plump, brilliant student whose tendency toward abandonment leads him to take up with a violent gang that takes honor in its sense of loyalty and is led by John's mythologized older brother, Benny (Joe Szula). The violent rites of passage that denote adolescent masculinity are let loose, mirrored in a myriad of social institutions, and what begins as a dark-toned coming-of-age tale gradually grows into a macabre psychological portrait that might very well make Rob Zombie smile with admiration.
Scripted by Mullen, and partially based on his own experiences in street gangs, Neds opens with the sort of celebratory moment that makes you think for a moment that things might be all right. Young John McGill graduates from his level with the highest marks in his class, and with his sainted mother, aunt, and younger sister watching on. They expect great things of him, as does John, who's held back from advancement due to a headmaster's grudge against Benny. Nevertheless, John quickly rises to become a star pupil, and years later, now a full-grown teenager, he finally finds a friend in another student over summer break who shares the wonders of headphones and T. Rex with him. When the boy's Catholic parents don't take kindly to John, however, he finds solace with a pack of aggressive ruffians who serve at Benny's pleasure and see John as the rightful heir to his throne. Introductions to the warring nature of gangs and the rush of rebellious behavior (and subsequent popularity) are only the first and lightest lessons John picks up.
As the headmaster and the community see it, John had these instincts in his blood, making it only a matter of time until not only his past, but the past crimes of his father and brother come back around on him. None returns more brutally than the egotistical twerp who bullied John when he was younger and was then given a proper knocking-about by Benny. Years later, the twerp returns and offers to share a joint with John's gang, a combustible situation that remains quiet until John happens upon him afterward and literally beats him within an inch of his life. John has committed other violent crimes by then, but this will become the sin that will stick with him as he is led further into darkness.
As John's need for attention and masculine confrontation grows to a monstrous fixation, as do his actions become that of a monster, but McCarron's utterly spellbinding performance grounds the character and never keeps that pudgy, geeky weakling that needed his big brother's help that far out of mind. Abetted by a brilliant cast, including the great Gary Lewis, Mark Leese's astonishingly vivid production design and Roman Osin's deft cinematography, Neds runs along the same lines as Mullan's superb The Magdalene Sisters, as an unflinching mixture between social realism and horror that remains both affecting and potently surreal. So startling is a sequence wherein John runs amok with kitchen knives taped to his hands, it threatens to overshadow the sublime lunacy of the final image of John and the twerp, now permanently brain-damaged, walking hand-in-hand through a field of lions.
Another batshit moment comes when John hallucinates getting into a knife fight with Jesus, and the film is rife with other instances of Catholic themes and imagery, not the least predictable of which is redemption. Prone to bouts of mental instability and extreme alienation, John's redemption is nonetheless hard-won and tough, to say the least. Mullan, a brilliant character actor himself, pushes his actors to go out on a limb, but he also knows how to give them space and even indulge in spare moments of levity, such as a teacher's (Lewis) distinctly odd reaction when John gets caught being tardy to class. This is to say that Mullan's gripping sense of atmosphere, complete with a great vintage soundtrack, doesn't take precedence over the inner and external lives of his characters.
At one point, a variation on Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" plays during a particularly vicious knife fight, and considering the young men's constant urge to stick one another, there's a sense of unresolved gay tension that John smothered when his first real friend abandoned him. In his stylistic fashion, Mullan intimates everything thematically, but none of these ideas ever obstructs that natural progression of his brawny narrative. John's tragic strides toward living up to his suave criminal brother yields a darker need to overcome his abusive father, who, in a deeply unsettling scene, is nearly beaten to death with a frying pan by John while his little sister closes her ears and hums a children's rhyme to herself. By the time John collapses onto his father, after getting worked over by a rival gang, Neds has shot past grim social realism and become something closer to Greek tragedy.