Men in the movies are rarely as vaporous and passive as Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor). He moves from woman to woman, from a failed career as a writer to a menial job on a coal barge. Joe occupies the middle ground between antihero and cipher.
Over the course of director David Mackenzie's gloomy adaptation of Scottish beat writer Alexander Trocchi's Young Adam, women — married, single, with or without children — are drawn to Joe's beauty, and he fucks them willingly. When they begin to suggest building a life with him, he changes back to vapor.
The rogue, the cad, the playboy have been tackled before on screen, but the act of seducing in most films is masculine and willful. Joe, however, suggests nothing of the rogue's machismo. He doesn't even appear to possess the powers of charisma or see the need for seduction. His finesse is more that of the carpetbagger: He sees an opportunity and exploits it. Other men's lapses are his fortune, absent husbands being Joe's specialty. Though passive and absurdly taciturn, Joe does seem to have a sixth sense where women are concerned. While their oblivious husbands are off playing darts or cards at the local pub, Joe moves in for the kill. Like a vulture guided more by instinct than malice, Joe smells fresh kill in the decaying remains of Ella (Tilda Swinton) and Les Gault's (Paul Mullan) marriage.
As the film opens, Joe has apparently been working and living on a cramped barge with Ella and Les and their young son for some time. But when Joe and Les discover a nearly nude woman's body floating in the Clyde River, something changes in the group's dynamic.
With the kind of sluggish, emotionless gestures that define the film, Joe and Les take turns using a long pole to fish the corpse out of the oily water. From the routine way they go about their actions, one might think pulling a body from the Clyde River was a daily occurrence.
Ella notices something sensitive in Joe. He is the only one who thinks to cover the girl's body with a cloth and protect her now worthless dignity. He reads books. Unlike Les, who is impotence and brutish predictability incarnate, Joe is unpredictable.
"What kind of a woman would do that?" Les frets over the corpse. Clearly a man of limited imagination, he is unable to figure how a woman could end up in such a disgraceful state.
"Just an ordinary woman," Joe says, acknowledging his familiarity with the murky depths beneath the surface.
Joe's willingness to believe there is more to life — and women — than meets the eye clearly inspires Ella. Suddenly, it appears, she is hooked.
Swinton is eerily accurate as the haggard, miserable Ella, as dead-eyed as a grocery store flounder. Worn down by work and a joyless existence, she seethes with the fury of the impotent, railing at her husband for the petty crime of lying about his wins at darts.
Ella and Joe begin their affair cautiously, sure that Les is far away drinking. But the sex begins to make them drowsy and dissolute: They fondle each other while Les sits inches away in the barge's claustrophobic quarters. Soon they are having sex below deck while Les steers the boat above.
In this grim working-class Scotland of the '50s, Joe seems the only man to have figured out that beneath their scullery maid fatigue, beneath a crypt of babies and housework and dirty labor, these women (and they pile up like a body count as the film progresses) are all anxious for the escape of sex.
Like David Cronenberg's Spider (written by New Gothic writer Patrick McGrath, whose Asylum is Mackenzie's next project), Young Adam derives much of its sordidness from the unexpected intrusion of ugly, brutish reality into the prim '50s. Corruption and lust brew and roil in Young Adam, pushing violently, threatening its emotional dams with bursting. Likewise the sex in Young Adam, which earned it an NC-17 rating, is laced with agony: weeping, rage, remorse and, with the discovery of that floating girl's body, death.
Despite Young Adam's lethargic rhythm, which can often ease the brain into a stupor, Mackenzie's film has much to offer — an accurate, deadly bead on human behavior and the fickle laws of the universe, including a woefully unjust murder trial for the dead girl's accused killer.
In Mackenzie's convincingly dejected milieu, people speak very little, too exhausted to bother with expressing feelings and more content to work it all out in the instinctual grunting of the bedroom. Though he uses few words, McGregor's exceptional powers of suggestion show why Joe would be so delirious to escape that sooty, impoverished reality as a writer — and how desperate his failure to succeed in that career makes him.
Joe's powers of imagination having failed him, he settles for the second option: experience. As much as the women he fucks, Joe keeps falling into the obliterating narcotic of sex.
Felicia Feaster is a staff writer with our sister paper, Creative Loafing-Atlanta. This review originally appeared in that paper on May 19. Contact Felicia at [email protected].