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Young Adam

Ewan McGregor stars in this mostly compelling 2003 drama as Joe, a Scottish drop-out working on a coal barge who discovers the corpse of a half-naked girl floating in the River Clyde. At first, this gruesome discovery appears to be just another bleak detail in the sullen lives of Joe and his co-worker Les (Peter Mullen) — who spend their days coated in the black filth of their profession — and the boat's owner, Ella (Tilda Swinton). Even without death's presence, life on the barge is not without tension: Although unmarried Ella and Les have a young son, Joe aggressively presses the dour Ella for a series of sexual trysts during Les's nightly pub visits. While Ella assumes their affair is prelude to a deeper relationship, Joe is preoccupied by flashbacks to a previous fling, marked by his sexual predation and narcissism. Joe's past does not bode well for Ella's new plans, which forces Joe into a crisis of conscience that some audience members may have difficulty relating to. Nicely directed and adapted by David MacKenzie from the first novel by beat author Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam is less the thriller it's been advertised as than an existential drama in the vein of Albert Camus' The Stranger. MacKenzie creates an effective atmosphere and manages to keep his film paced slowly enough to capture a tactile sense of place and establish a deliberate mood, but he also packs it with enough charged (and explicit) sex and emotion that it rarely surrenders interest. Young Adam is both best and worst near its inevitably cynical conclusion as its narrative picks up steam, but in doing so it removes Joe from the registers of reasonable empathy. MacKenzie's best move was in his casting; McGregor possesses the perfect balance of intense apathy and seductive charm to make nihilistic Joe worth watching, even as he chronically bucks the modest expectations of all who trust him. The wraithish Swinton is also typically good, playing here a weak character with a facade of false strengths, as are Mullen as the rough-but-soft Les and Emily Mortimer as Joe's vulnerable former girlfriend. Evocative score by David Byrne. Columbia TriStar presents Young Adam in a vivid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. MacKenzie pipes in on one commentary track, while Swinton, editor Colin Monie, and production designer Laurence Dorman join MacKenzie on a second track. The disc also includes an extended oral sex scene trimmed for the film's R-rating and a few bits of discarded narration recorded by McGregor. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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