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Beer Eats the Soul

Doomed drunk recollects harsh, hard-knock life in portrait of embattled Scottish manhood

Title notwithstanding, the protagonist of 16 Years of Alcohol knows his poison: "My name is Frankie," he announces at an AA meeting, "and I am a violent man." In this portrait of embattled Scottish manhood, booze is merely the most efficient way to disinhibit the savage within. The dialect of choice on these Edinburgh mean streets is a psychopathic hair-trigger rage; grudges are obscurely motivated and typically settled with a battery of kicks to the head. This semi-autobiographical first feature by Richard Jobson—frontman for '70s Scottish art-punks the Skids and, later, poet, model, TV presenter, and film producer—replaces the social-realist grit of British miserablism with a grandiose blast of stylized nostalgia. A voice-over-heavy scrapbook of inert tableaux and still images, the result is incongruous, unsubtle, and weirdly evocative—imagine a Gaspar Noé scenario as interpreted by Terence Davies, or a punk record played at the wrong speed.

A dying man's flashback, 16 Years opens with Frankie Mac (an excellent Kevin McKidd) stumbling into a bloody brawl in an alleyway lit to suggest a birth canal, then rewinds to fill in three key phases of his life. The most distant memories are the most vivid and unreal. With its radiant pub sing-alongs, awkward sexual epiphanies, and alternately idealized and monstrous parents, Frankie's '60s childhood strongly recalls the ecstatic misery of Davies's early films. The boy's father, an adulterous charmer who rules happy hour at the local bar, is the key figure in the movie's crude psychology. Surveying the wreckage after a bout of domestic violence, Frankie picks up an unfinished glass of whiskey—a moment that seals his destiny, setting in motion a lifelong cycle of recovery and relapse.

Macho and maudlin in equal measure, the film takes as given—and even somewhat fetishizes—Frankie's inability to be saved. Despite a few short-lived sober idylls, the adult Frankie, a slave to his irrational paranoia and mistrust, proves tragically impervious to the redemptive love of not one but two angelic women—a winsome art student (Laura Fraser), who briefly lures him away from his skinhead gang buddies, and a sad-eyed fellow AA member (Susan Lynch).

Terminal bar: Lynch and McKidd
photo: Tartan Films
Terminal bar: Lynch and McKidd

Jobson, who claims Wong Kar-wai as an inspiration, freely uses voice-over and pop songs to caulk over the cracks of his story. The narration, a stream of rock-bottom soliloquizing, adds an unwelcome flavor of New Age noir ("Hope is a strange thing . . . the more familiar you are with hope, the less beautiful it becomes"), but the foregrounded soundtrack (the Stooges, Roxy Music) electrifies the Clockwork Orange-homaging '70s scenes. John Rhodes's saturated hi-def video images are inventively lit and arrestingly framed. But 16 Years' greatest asset may be its star: Trainspotting's McKidd, coiled and queasy, transcends the dubious romanticism and hard-man clichés of his role—he exudes a commanding air of constancy in a film that teeters between the rapturous and the ridiculous.

 
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