Director, writer, and actor Peter Mullan returns with “Neds,” a coming-of-age tale that admirably has enough surprises up its sleeve to add something valuable to this venerable genre. This is Mullan’s first film since “The Magdalene Sisters” in 2002.

Set in Glasgow in 1972, “Neds” benefits from precise attention to detail, nearly every scene evidencing Mullan’s extra care. Case in point: early in the film, we see future delinquent John McGill working diligently at home on a jigsaw puzzle of the Statue of Liberty. This is the perfect touch: it brings back to life a period when the rest of the world actually still dreamed American dreams, and it accentuates John’s prisonlike predicament in Scotland, where he is hammered from all sides by an abusive father, authoritarian teachers, and his peers, an army of bullies.


“Neds” stands for “non-educated delinquents”: exactly the category that John, a high-IQ underachiever, may fall into forever if he cannot get his head on straight and stop seeking out trouble. This could be predictable material, but Mullan eschews the well-worn formula of good boy turns bad boy turns good boy again, which, as we know, always comes after some tragic, character-building events.


John’s redemption comes in fits and starts. Who knows if he ever really makes it? This film, despite a couple of notable dreamlike sequences, feels much realer than your run-of-the-mill “Rebel Without a Cause but With a Very Good Chance of Becoming a Nice Guy (Possibly a Film Director).”


Mullan gets natural performances from all his young actors, Conor McCarron as John chief among them. It is no small feat to get us this interested in a kid whose emotions are this hard to read: McCarron pulls it off.


John starts as an innocent, but Mullan plants the seeds of his eventual turn to violence from the film’s first minutes. When that turn comes, the violence is all the more shocking for our memories of the younger, almost dandified John, intent on his studies and determined to not follow the path of his criminal older brother.


Mullan’s novelistic screenplay is a treasure. Without sacrificing cohesion, he makes enough room for minor tangents and asides that enrich the main thrust and themes. Nothing here feels prepackaged, although we have seen similar stories so many times.


Working with the team of cinematographer Roman Osin and editor Colin Monie, Mullan comes up with several unusual choices that add to, rather than detract from, the film’s mood. There is a brilliant fight scene between two gangs on a bridge, as an example, that is set to Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” (the version by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band). Mullan in this way gently points out the homoeroticism implicit in the boys’ wrestling with one another, a theme threaded throughout the film.


In a couple of crucial moments—including a very disturbing one in which John brutally, for little cause, beats another boy in a cemetery—Mullan covers the action in distancing long shots. He pulls away from easier choices and then right away goes in close on something seemingly unrelated that adds shades of meaning to the main action. In this one, John, after essentially leaving the other boy for dead, goes right back to making out with his girlfriend, and Mullan and Osin then go in tight.


Mullan’s tour de force here is a scene in which John sniffs glue and, again in a cemetery, has a hallucinatory encounter with an apparition of Jesus. Said scene begins with John trying to converse with a large crucifix (shot upside-down from John’s POV); then nails from Jesus’ hands magically rain down on the boy; Jesus next appears before him alive, and the two tenderly hug (as “You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me” by the New Seekers kicks in); John and Jesus suddenly go at it, trying to kill each other. It is funny, unsettling, and sad all at once.


This is what makes “Neds” special: it is almost always operating on multiple levels at once—and going in unexpected directions. Almost every scene contains a surprise. Mullan has spruced up a kind of film we know all too well.




John McGill – Conor McCarron

Benny – Joe Szula

Canta – Gary Milligan

Julian – Martin Bell

Beth – Marianna Palka

Mr. McGill – Peter Mullan




A Tribeca Film release.

Directed and written by Peter Mullan.

Produced by Alain de la Mata, Marc Missonnier, and Olivier Delbosc.

Cinematography, Roman Osin.

Editing, Colin Monie.

Original Music, Craig Armstrong.


Running time: 124 minutes.