Young Adam

There is clearly more to “Young Adam” than I am getting. The title, for example. No one in the movie is named Adam, so it must be symbolic. Used in that sense, “Adam” usually refers to the world’s first man, an unspoiled creature who lived a life of ease and splendor in the Garden of Eden before he screwed up and got evicted. But the protagonist in “Young Adam,” Joe, is a fairly wicked person, devoid of scruples and morality — if anything, he’s the “old” Adam, the one who HAS been corrupted by the flesh. Maybe the “young” implies that he’s not perfect YET, that God is still working on him. Adam in the garden was fully grown when God put him there, after all. Maybe in his youth, somewhere in the mists of heaven, God workshopped him, getting him ready for the big-time. Maybe he was every bit the scoundrel that Joe is.

But this is all speculation. What’s certain is that “Young Adam” is repetitive and drawn-out. Its first 45 minutes or so seem to promise interesting things to come, but its last hour does not deliver. We realize all that will occur is more of what we’ve already seen.

Joe is an itinerant Scottish laborer who has found work aboard a barge run by Les Gault (Peter Mullan) and his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton). Played dourly by Ewan McGregor, Joe is the sort of man who sleeps with every woman he meets, if he cares to, and he usually cares to. Ella, perhaps sensing this and seeking to thwart him, behaves coldly, but the affair happens nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Joe and Les have discovered the body of a woman, clad only in petticoat, floating on the river. Finders of corpses become minor local celebrities in a town where there is seldom any real news, but Joe’s interest in the woman runs deeper. In flashback, we learn why: He knew her. And since we’re talking biblical here, you know what “knew her” means.

Directed by David Mackenzie and adapted by him from Alexander Trocchi’s novel, this is a somber, moody film, often cast in muted colors and midnight blues. (Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens did equally striking work in “The Deep End,” which also starred Swinton.) The visuals are thus appealing, and the way information about the characters is revealed slowly and out of chronological sequence invites a viewer’s interest.

Alas, the film, as it turns out, has nowhere to go. It establishes beyond question that Joe is a bad person, a user, liar, manipulator and hedonist. He flirts with repentance prompted by guilt, but guilt alone is not powerful enough to change a man like this. We learn all this, but to what end? Joe’s character arc is that he has no character arc: The lesson WE learn is that HE refuses to learn lessons. The movie ladles out its atmosphere of quiet dread admirably, but atmosphere alone seldom makes a film watchable. This one is too sour in its attitude and vague in its ideas.

C (1 hr., 37 min.; NC-17, a lot of strong sexuality, a lot of nudity, some harsh profanity (though it's still on the same level as plenty of other movies that were only rated R).)