It happens. Things run their course. And bodies end up in rivers. Barge men Les and Joe pull a young woman, in nothing but a petticoat, out of the dark water with a hook. They tell the ambulance not to hurry.
Based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam is an atmosphere-heavy ride on a barge continually intersecting the gossip and trials surrounding a dead woman, and the emotionally dead affairs of Joe (Ewan McGregor). Scottish director David Mackenzie is a pro at bleeding one brooding moment into the next. But he’s maybe a little too good at it. The aura and music hold a constant tone of morbid poetic persistence, never allowing dramatic peaks and dives, which makes for a very monotonous, yet beautiful, film.
He may never have been in paradise, but at least Joe used to have romantic hopes and dreams. To try to forget about the worn-out past, he’s taken to shoveling coal and working a barge that runs between dim river towns in Scotland, sucking his shipmate’s wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), into his loneliness. It’s tough to resist a strapping young Joe, who approaches subtle seduction as if it were a debilitating disease he can’t shake, and carries an inconsolable solemnity inside himself even as he gets lucky with the lonely women that cross his path. Mackenzie accentuates the melancholy effect with subtle cuts in the film: from Joe walking over the top of the barge, to the face-down body floating in the river, to Ella’s lips, to Joe tenderly pulling the petticoat down over the dead woman’s behind, to a sensuous shot of Ella scratching herself, allowing Joe to see inside her dress. The film work is smooth and stylish, but offers no surprises or epiphanies on any level.
The goings-on around Joe and the barge reflect his state of being; he’s a man floating aimlessly between ports, between people, with the corpses of his lost hopes dead in the water that surrounds him. Even when inside relationships vacant of love, he still manages to hold onto a sensitivity that strikes deep. And like the film itself, Joe is a traveling portrait of a decaying spirit, allowed an occasional breathtaking, pastoral moment, covered in black coal dust.
Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content. Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].