Gritty and Grim, Young Adam Steers Clear of Cliches and Heads Instead for Emotional Depths
Young Adam opens in a typical thriller fashion with a dead body--a young female floater bobbing by a dock on a Glasgow waterway. But Young Adam isn't a thriller. There's nothing typical about it, really. Yes, you eventually find out who she is and how she wound up a slip-clad corpse. There is an investigation, a suspect, a trial, and guilt determined. But the real mystery here centers on what's going on inside Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor). Writer/director David Mackenzie, working from Alexander Trocchi's 1954 novel, gives you plenty of clues but still leaves you guessing.
Quiet, young, good-looking Joe finds the body while making his crust as the sole hand on a small cargo barge captained by grizzled Les Gault (Peter Mullan, last seen on American screens in a bit part in The Magdalene Sisters, which he wrote and directed). By day Joe helps Les load and haul coal through narrow urban canals; by night he shares cramped on-board living quarters with Les, his lank, put-upon wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), and their young son Jim (Jack McElhone). The barge is so cramped in fact, that Joe can spy on Les and Ella's failed sex life through a crack in the wall.
Les seems like a decent, hard-working sort, and he and Joe are friendly in their taciturn Hibernian way. In one sweet, wordless scene they even scrub the soot off each other's backs at the end of the day. For his part, Joe is thoughtful enough that he sticks his nose in a book in his time off. But he's not so circumspect that he doesn't stick his hand up Ella's skirt the first chance he gets.
It's hard to see what Joe sees in Ella at first. But as the story unspools and Mackenzie unpacks a series of flashbacks to Joe's life before he met the Gaults, it's hard to see why Joe does anything he does. He risks his life to save Jim, then overturns the boy's world by wrecking his family. The rate at which women fall into bed with Joe on merely meeting his frank gaze borders on unintentional comedy, but the joylessness of his compulsive ruts stifles any smirks. As the flashbacks catch up to the present, it turns out that Joe can be quite cold, even cruel, and that he knows much more about what happened to the dead girl than he lets on to the Gaults and the police. (Before you roll your eyes at the whiff of thriller cliché, it's not quite what you expect.) As the film reaches its denouement, Joe faces down a fatal moral quandary armed with inchoate morals at best. As the film ends, the abyss inside Joe stares back at you and bores holes in your back all the way out to the lobby.
Humble, grimy, deliberate, brutal in its emotional logic, and built around a protagonist who's not so much unlikable as unfathomable, Young Adam concedes nothing to the notion of film as escape. But Mackenzie, tackling only his second feature, steers an unerring course during this anhedonia cruise. There's nothing much to look at along the gray Scottish backwaters and back rooms in which the film takes place, but each shot is composed to make the most of it. Mackenzie's flat take on an alleyway tryst says as much about its squalor as the story leading up to it.
Mackenzie makes only two obvious missteps: going with David Byrne's intrusive, ill-fitting score and allowing one small moment in which Swinton's Ella comes off a bit too coarse, with crumbs spilling out of her open mouth. It seems unnecessary, as Joe's growing revulsion for Ella once he's won her is clear, and the three leads' performances are otherwise kept at a perfect simmer.
It's no surprise to find Mullan (My Name Is Joe) and Swinton (Orlando, The Beach, The Deep End) in top form, sneaking out fearless, lived-in performances. McGregor provides the revelation. After Big Fish, Down With Love, the awful Star Wars sequels, and Moulin Rouge!, McGregor returns to a wholly realistic, unstylized role, and provides a welcome reminder of what a talent he is. While doing no obvious "acting," he allows you to see Joe's blankness, his incomprehension of the emotional needs of others, his flickers of self-loathing, his nub of a conscience trying to exercise itself. Subverting his movie-star charisma in keeping with the character, McGregor draws you in at the outset and leaves you wishing you'd never met him by the end. You won't forget him, though.