A body floats in dark water. Standing on a pier near the coal barge on which he works, Joe (Ewan McGregor) spots the corpse, lap-lapping on the gentle current. Intrigued, he stares harder, and then, with the help of his employer, Les (Peter Mullan), pulls it out. When she — for the body is a young woman’s — flops onto the wooden pier, the men wonder aloud at the fact that she’s wearing only a petticoat. “I suppose,” observes Joe quietly, “we should cover her.” And so they drape a tarp over the torso, her deathly white legs left visible.
This first scene in David Mackenzie’s Young Adam sets you in the middle of Joe’s story, adapted from Alexander Trocchi’s novel. Cutting back and forth in time, the film gradually reveals the events that have led this self-described writer to be, as his ex puts it, “in bed with the illustrious working classes.” The seeming disorder of these scenes, along with David Byrne’s jazzy score (which never quite “fits” the scene it accompanies, at least not in any conventional way), suggests that Joe’s drifting is less a matter of destiny, just desserts, or even will, than it is random, a series of accidents that might just as easily have gone another way.
And yet, Joe’s trajectory through post-war Glasgow and Edinburgh takes on a sort of dread inevitability. Following his discovery of the body, he and Les watch from a distance, caked in coal dust, as the coroner arrived to take it away. As attendants hoist her onto a stretcher and trundle to the waiting ambulance, one of her pale legs drops out from beneath the protective sheet. Again, Joe seems undisturbed by the sight but he catches Les’ wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), as she looks at the leg, limp, exposed, and not a little unsettling. In his eyes, they’ve made a connection.
The dead girl comes up again and again, not only in Joe and Les’ barroom conversations (they become local celebrities as the body’s finders, even though their names are omitted from the newspaper story) and Ella’s revulsion at their repeated references to it, but also as it slowly emerges that Joe knew the girl before. His first meeting with Cathie (Emily Mortimer) is as stripped down and creep as a “romance” might be: espying her on the beach, he sits beside her, smiles some, then invites her to go on “a walk” with him. “Where to?” she asks. “Over there,” he nods toward a set of tall rocks.
Joe’s blithe lasciviousness is more thematic than emotional or personal, in the sense that he’s emblematic of a certain lack of empathy and inspiration — as each takes imaginative energy that he refuses to put out. Partly this apathy is born of his moment (he resembles other “anti-heroes” of his era, nihilistic and probably smug if he gave it any thought). Because he can’t care, Joe takes what he can, from everyone who comes near.
It’s not long before he’s hitting on Ella, his hand sliding onto her knee beneath the shabby dinner table, below deck on the barge. Her husband and young son Jim (Jack McElhone) sit across from her, each absorbed in his nightly reading, and Joe, seeing if not quite understanding her loneliness, has made what seems an odious move. Ella’s initial response is born of her conditioned hopelessness. Not imagining that she’s desirable (as Les has lapsed into alcoholic impotence), she’s self-defensively passive during their first, rowdy, outdoors encounter. She literally spreads her legs and lies back, while Joe goes about his “business.” The fact that he even begins to attend to her needs (he goes down on her before he penetrates her) is no small surprise to her.
Ella’s attitude changes as the “affair” goes on, first noting Joe’s strangely poetic sensibility (as he describes his version of the dead girl’s story) and then using the relationship for her own purposes, asking for sex when she wants it and eventually, risking discovery by her husband, as if challenging the two men in her life to battle over her, to take stands that neither seems inclined to take. That such subtle, seemingly passive deviousness becomes Ella’s only means of action makes her a match for either man, though one is presuming privilege by husbandly ownership (though, as he sadly points out on his departure, she owns the barge), the other by some very regular seeming masculinist destiny.
At the same time, Ella’s most passionate affections and most physical frustrations are aimed at Jim. Her love can’t save Jim (who knows enough to call out Joe as a “bastard,” even as Les, his father, meekly walks away from his obligations and assembled life) from becoming as depressed and hapless as the men who serve as his models. Joe voices his own displeasure with the child (telling Cathie that he spends his days wishing Jim would fall overboard, this even after he’s leaped into the river to stop Jim from drowning when he faces just such an event), but his diffidence is too studied to seem threatening, exactly.
That is, until he launches into an assault on Cathie, who accuses him of not laziness (essentially, impotence), as his writing produces no income and she supports him. Even here, a scene that has inspired some viewers to recall Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider’s rowdy sex adventures, Joe’s alarming disinterest, in the act or in Cathie, suggests that he’s not exploring possibilities (sensual or exploitative) so much as he’s avoiding feeling anything at all. This makes Joe all the more disconcerting, for his violence and unkindness have no aims: he’s not bad, precisely. He’s only careless.