Photo by Neil Davidson

The dankly compelling Young Adam is adapted from the slim 1954 cult novel by the Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi, a minor but pungent talent whose gutbucket existentialism is in the tradition of Roberto Arlt’s 7 Madmen, George Simenon’s Dirty Snow and any Jim Thompson book you might care to name. Set in the early ’50s, it begins with a woman’s corpse floating in the river. The body is discovered by Joe (Ewan McGregor), a young drifter who’s working for Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) on a barge carrying coal from Glasgow to Edinburgh. In his own way, Joe is something of a ladykiller: a selfish, would-be bohemian who gloms onto women for sex and material support but flees if they expect anything of him. Soon, he and acrid-tongued Ella are rutting like mad seals in the barge’s cramped quarters while the impotent Les tosses darts at the pub. Meanwhile, Joe’s mind is filled with thoughts of the pliant, young Cathie (Emily Mortimer), the girl he left behind.

Young Adam was written and directed by David Mackenzie, a previously unheralded Scottish director who has taken on the tricky task of transforming a thinly plotted first-person novel into a piece of visual storytelling. Drenching his world in lovely-bleak blues, grays and browns — the film is finely shot by The Deep End’s Gilles Nuttgens — Mackenzie evokes a dingy, post–World War II Scotland of dinky flats, slag heaps and pinched lives. Everyone desperately seeks to flee into something: alcohol, suburban bliss, a journey to China, another person’s arms. Orgasm is the closest these characters get to transcendence, and what binds Joe to Ella, as to Cathie before him, is the desperate slap of flesh on flesh atop damp grass or beneath oily truck beds. (British cinema

hasn’t lost its knack for sordid sex scenes.) Escape remains a mirage that beckons alluringly in the distance, like the fun-fair whirligig that Joe sees from the barge; when he finally gets there, it starts raining.

The movie is another showcase for the underappreciated McGregor, who disappears into his character so discreetly that, even as his face lets us track Joe’s every thought, you never feel you’re watching a Performance. He’s not a self-serious Method man like Sean Penn, whose work seems designed to make us think, “What a powerful piece of acting!” Nor does he vaunt his own courage at playing an unlikable cad such as Joe, a floundering avant-garde writer who lives off Cathie’s earnings and repays her with abuse, most notably in a sequence involving custard, ketchup and sodomy — Last Tango in Glasgow. McGregor’s lack of vanity finds its perfect complement in Swinton. Revived by the attentions of the unreliable Joe, Ella shakes off the slump-shouldered acrimony of an unhappy wife and becomes almost coltish.

The source novel is a piece of lightweight Camus (it has affinities with both The Stranger and The Fall), but one senses that Trocchi thinks of it as a big statement about guilt, responsibility and the hell of other people. In fact, his vision is too reductive for that. For all the symbolic weight of its title, Young Adam doesn’t come close to giving us Existence. But it does give us one limited human being. And so does Mackenzie’s film, which, in its grimy claustrophobia and casual amorality, is a portrait of the artist as a selfish young bastard, a man who thinks the world around him is soiled, and finds it just terrible, but wants to believe that, in the final analysis, it has nothing to do with him.

| Written and directed by DAVID MACKENZIE, based on the novel by ALEXANDER TROCCHI | Produced by JEREMY THOMAS | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At selected theaters

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