Something lupine and predatory skulks at the edges of Ewan McGregor’s screen persona, adding feral bite to his scrappy dissenters in Trainspotting and Velvet Gold- mine but leaving incongruous fang marks on the pomo pastiche of Moulin Rouge and Down With Love. He smiles without his eyes. As the wandering failed novelist Joe Taylor in Young Adam, he speaks in a drizzly monotone and hardly smiles at all, or shows much expression of any kind; McGregor’s latent menace leaves a phantom watermark on blank-page Joe, who uses and discards his lovers and employers as affectlessly as he does his omnipresent cigarettes. (If Joe isn’t smoking, he must be fucking.)
As Scottish director David Mackenzie’s lean, intensely concentrated movie opens, Joe is earning his keep as a bargeman on the Clyde River, living and working alongside an unhappily married couple, Les (Peter Mullan, redoubtable as always) and Ella (Tilda Swinton), and their small son. Ella is a fuming bundle of twigs and rags, and when Joe manages a smirky leer in her direction, her face briefly contorts in horror; perhaps her reaction comes down to timing—the local police just happen to be carting away a corpse that Joe and Les fished out of the river earlier that morning. Young Adam births Eros and Thanatos as conjoined twins. With interspersed flashbacks, Mackenzie has made the protagonist’s link to the drowned young woman clear by the time Joe notices an errant fly, perched on Ella’s nipple, while she sleeps off yet another of their strenuous sex bouts. All the ladies in Joe’s life, it seems, carry a scent of death. Or does he?
Vividly bleak, faithfully lifted from the 1954 novel by “Scottish Beat” Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam relocates The Stranger—cipherous central figure, kangaroo murder trial, and all—to the waterways of a grubby post-war Scotland. Hauling coal is tough and dirty toil, scarcely relieved by banal conversation and, for Joe at least, compulsive bonking. Somewhat more self-aware and proactive than Camus’s Meursault, with a toxic trace of Johnny’s nihilist petulance in Mike Leigh’s Naked, Joe personifies existentialist stupor and misanthropy. The film’s laconic miserablism is never more acute than in the aftermath of an alleyway quickie, when Joe’s disappointed partner smooths her skirt, picks up her still-burning cig from the ground, and stalks away.
In his second feature (he debuted with The Last Great Wilderness, a chaotic, part-improvised horror-comedy shot on DV), Mackenzie arranges meticulous CinemaScope compositions in thirds, favoring a close-up of a face positioned at the left or right of the screen. As did Lynne Ramsay in Morvern Callar and David Cronenberg in Spider, Mackenzie adapts a hermetic first-person narration but bravely eschews a voice-over, opting instead for subtly expressionist imagery—cinematographer Giles Nuttgens filters a damp string of pubs and the basement claustrophobia of the cramped barge through mildewy browns and blues that recall Peter Suschitzky’s work for Cronenberg. (Mackenzie and Nuttgens’s next collaboration: the film version of Asylum, the novel by Spider author Patrick McGrath.) Slightly muddled by David Byrne’s monotonous electro-violin score, the movie’s fiercest assets lie in its formidable cast: Emily Mortimer (as Joe’s wheedling ex-flame, Cathie), McGregor, and especially Swinton are as frank and fearless with their NC-17 naked bodies as Mackenzie is uncompromised in conveying Trocchi’s sulfurous purview on labor and lust to the screen. Perhaps aptly for a no-exit tale, Young Adam doesn’t quite know how to take its leave; it tapers off like a curling cigarette trail, but it lingers like a ghost.