The Scottish actor and director Peter Mullan is a man intrigued and terrified by the ties that bind us -- the links to our families, class and backgrounds that drag us to our destinies, sometimes kicking and screaming like the doomed women in his last film, 2002's The Magdalene Sisters. His new film, Neds, is a no-nonsense, often brutal and violent film with the odd hint of dreamy, comic fantasy. It's set in Glasgow in 1972, where it always looks like dusk in winter, and Mullan gives us a young teen, John (first played by Gregg Forrest, then Conor McCarron, in an assured debut), who makes a swift, downwards journey from gongs to gangs: we first meet him winning an award at his junior school -- but before long, he's wielding a knife as the most reckless member of a local mob of hard nuts.
Mullan points the finger at both school and home: John's teachers are brutish, ineffective or mad; his father, played by Mullan, floats through the house like an alcoholic ghost and terrorises his mother with his tongue and fists; and his older brother Benny (Joe Szula) is a bully boy with a reputation that protects and defines his younger sibling.
The tale and its themes are familiar, and the most obvious recent comparison is Shane Meadows's This Is England -- but Mullan and Meadows are miles apart in tone. Mullan rejects all cosy period tics and music choices and aims for a stark look and feel and a discomfiting clash of styles. Mostly, he goes for straight-down-the-line realism, but he also calls on heightened acting from some actors, such as from himself as John's father and Gary Lewis as a teacher who gives John a piggy-back, and inserts some sequences of pure, expressive fantasy -- one even involving lions. It's a personal, affecting and pleasingly unusual film, a little too long perhaps and unwieldy in its final stages, but never less than shocking, powerful and utterly relevant.