Young Adam

Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, and Peter Mullan in a tale of sex and sociopathy.



Film sociopaths these days are labeled like museum exhibits. In this summer's psycho-thriller Suspect Zero, FBI agents enter a room where every inch of space is covered with symbolic zeros. "I think we've got an obsessive-compulsive here," an agent says. No shit.


One could blame art or life for such simplification, The Silence of the Lambs or the prevalence of the word "evil" in American discourse. Blame aside, Young Adam is the latest European film to courageously acknowledge the complexity of the darker side of life. Young Adam's Scottish writer/director David Mackenzie correctly finds more horror in the failure of novelist E.M. Forster's dictum "only connect" than in an unblinking "hello, Clarice." Young Adam is sociopathy for grownups.


Based on a novel by Alexander Trocchi, the allegorically titled Young Adam stars Ewan McGregor as Joe, a quiet, emotionless man hired to work on a barge with married couple Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella (Tilda Swinton). After Joe and Les discover the nearly naked body of a woman floating in the water, Joe uses the find to begin his seduction of Ella, describing in minute detail the way the woman must have removed her clothes before killing herself. The story progresses in two separate time threads, Joe's success with Ella anachronistically coinciding with glimpses into his secret relationship with the dead woman.


But the narrative twist isn't the payoff here, and those looking for a thriller or murder mystery will be disappointed. Like 2002's Morvern Callar, directed by Mackenzie's fellow Scot Lynne Ramsay, Young Adam uses the discovery of a corpse to lend forward momentum to a complex story about the inner life of its silent protagonist.


Both films bravely eschew voiceover. Ramsay used music to give her protagonist a voice. Mackenzie uses sex, which makes the attempted censorship of the film all the more ludicrous (McGregor had to fight to keep his nude scenes in the film; he eventually won, but the film was slapped with an NC-17 rating).


Though Young Adam contains relatively little nudity, some of its couplings are truly memorable. The best, which involves custard and condiments and is set to jazz great Charles Mingus' delirious Haitian Fight Song, more than equals the butter scene from Last Tango in Paris.


The cast is superb all around. McGregor gives authenticity to an inherently limited character. Swinton—all angles and bones and desolation—and the deceptively effortless Mullan are great, as always.


If you enjoy Young Adam, check out Mackenzie's previous film, The Last Great Wilderness. Both can be found on the new release wall of your local video store.


--Joshua Avram

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