Neds and Black Swan

Portraying a troubled mind requires skill, not overkill.

The coming-of-age film hinges on the reassuring lie that transformative moments can be packaged into a "What I did on my summer holidays" class assignment, rather than occurring incrementally over a lifetime. What makes Peter Mullan's Neds, set among Glasgow street gangs in the 1970s, such an unusual example of the genre is its reluctance to pinpoint precisely when its young protagonist, John McGill, veers away from academic excellence and towards criminality, or even to offer much distinction between them.

John is played by two newcomers, each riveting in different ways. Gregg Forrest, pure and breakable as a bottle of milk, covers young adolescence, when John is a timid goody-goody. He passes the baton - or the saucepan, granite headstone or any of the other weapons he later wields - to Conor McCarron. This imposing 17-year-old resembles an overgrown baby that has had to punch its way out of the womb.

Neds covers similar ground to the 1996 film Small Faces, which also concerned bright boys mixed up in Glasgow gang culture, but it turns out that this town is big enough for the both of them. Whereas Small Faces used its hero's creativity to provide a hint of salvation, Neds demonstrates that cleverness can be its own prison. When John achieves top marks, he has to stand on his chair as a glowing example to his classmates. The academic endorsement represents social death. That'll teach him.

In time John becomes a sophisticated student of intimidation. He is happy to pretend he can't translate a Latin phrase, even if it means being lashed with a belt. That way, he gets to save face and to taunt the encouraging Latin master who has such faith in him. It's a peculiarity of Neds that even its graphic violence can't eclipse the everyday cruelties perpetrated in the classroom by teachers and pupils alike.

Five years on from being teacher's pet, John is a thug stalking the streets with glinting blades strapped to his wrists, like a Glaswegian Freddy Krueger. Far from sacrificing his intelligence, he has channelled it into a new outlet. When he wants to make a point, he doesn't hurl a brick through a window, but chooses a missile that will have particular resonance for the victim. His violence is anything but mindless. He puts some thought into it.

Brutality runs in the family. His elder brother Benny (Joe Szula) is a notorious tough nut, and though John appears to have nothing in common with him, that isn't the same thing as refusing to benefit from his reputation. When John is bullied, Benny drags the culprit into the bushes below his bedroom window as if in preparation for a serenade. Like a Roman emperor, John must decide on his persecutor's fate with a turn of the thumb. Violence is a stench that sticks to John even before he can smell it himself.

Mullan displayed a taste for absurdism in his first film, Orphans. Neds is a more despairing vision, but it, too, trades in a warped reality. Mullan's musical choices, such as Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" during a gang fight, can be self-consciously ironic, but everything else is just slightly, gloriously "off". An embrace between John and a statue of Christ turns nasty when the Messiah lands a right hook on him. An urchin on a school trip to a safari park is warned by a ranger to stay in the van because of the lions, and spits back: "Fuck off, I'm not gonnae touch your lions!" John alone sees everything with a piercing clarity. Neither a Ned ("non-educated delinquent") nor likely to escape his surroundings, he falls between any number of stools and is smart enough to know it.

The profound closing shot of Neds reminds you that film-makers and audiences need not fear ostentatious symbolism, which is just as well in the light of Black Swan. Darren Aron­ofsky's film shares with his last picture, The Wrestler, a fascination with the masochism of performance. It portrays the physical and psychological breakdown suffered by a young dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman), who lands the lead in a New York City Ballet production of Swan Lake. She is so shrill and twitchy to begin with that hers is not so much a descent into madness as a sideways shuffle. Caught between a demanding mother (Barbara Hershey), the company's sadistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), a carefree rival dancer (Mila Kunis) and an over-the-hill soloist (Winona Ryder), she is in a tizzy even before she starts sprouting swan feathers. (On the plus side, she could always get a nice eiderdown out of the experience.)

Aronofsky's camera responds to Nina's mental state with a schlocky visual overkill that makes a mockery of comparisons with Roman Polanski. (Black Swan has the same relationship to Repulsion as lift muzak has to Tchaikovsky.) Skin peels, blood drips, paintings come to life: the higher the hallucinations are piled, the less we notice them. Maybe that's why I responded so warmly to the pianist who flounces out of rehearsal, telling Nina: "I've got a life. You work too hard." Sanity at last. The film could always have a future as the Showgirls of ballet; Tomas's advice to Nina - "Go home and touch yourself. Live a little!"- certainly won't hurt. But as an insight into art, sexuality and perfectionism, or even just as a psychological thriller, it represents an unreasonable lowering of the barre.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency