Given the loveless, amoral way in which a Scottish drifter sates his sexual hunger for women in Young Adam, the title of David Mackenzie’s coal-gray, unnerving drama takes on ironic heft. There’s no Eden to be found in the 1950s Glasgow of this luxuriously brutish story, the very opposite of a ”nice” tale — and I mean that as a compliment. If Joe (Ewan McGregor), an itinerant laborer, is meant to stand in for the first Everyman, then the point of writer-director Mackenzie’s impressive, unsettling film — adapted from a novel by ”Scottish Beat Generation” author Alexander Trocchi — is that humankind was well and truly rotten even before the appearance of the serpent, the apple, and the notion of sin. And Mackenzie trusts his audience to consider the possibility like adults.
Joe, who works with Les (Peter Mullan) on a coal barge owned by Les’ wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), is first seen fishing the corpse of a nearly naked young woman out of the River Clyde — one more chore in a monotony of hard labor and cramped, floating gloom. But it’s not long before Joe has seduced Ella, stoked her own banked appetites, and lit a flame of danger that illuminates, in flashback, Joe’s previous tempestuous relationship with a devoted and abused girlfriend (Emily Mortimer). Freed from the constrictions of glamour, McGregor’s performance is a marvel of alluring unlikability. It is also no small, nihilistic detail that Joe’s previous avocation was that of a writer — as mean, magnetic, and conscienceless a calling, apparently, as they come.
Trouble floats downstream in Young Adam, and the graphic, NC-17-baiting sex is, literally, dirty: Joe takes his women with foreplay consisting of a frank, voracious stare, followed by rough coupling on grass, dirt, coal dust, rocks, and against the brick wall of an alleyway; and when that ceases to alienate, he incorporates kitchen condiments into a climactic, shocking scene of sadomasochistic conquest. But the women are equals, too, each responsible for her own lousy choice. The clammy power of Young Adam lies as much in the frank, emotional nakedness the actors bring to their roles under Mackenzie’s care as in the baroque hopelessness of the plot.