Judge Daryl Loomis is the Daddy now!
"I was only concerned with men being stripped of their dignity, cons and screws. We aren't much different in here, y'know."
I'm always loath to watch the British social realism movies of the 1970s and '80s. The work of Mike Leigh (Bleak Moments), Ken Loach (Kes) and, as we see here, Alan Clarke (Made in Britain) is unflinching and often quite brutal. While I can sit around all day and watch death after death in horror movies, the harshness and desolation represented in this kind of film is almost too much to see. When I do agree to sit down and watch one, though, I am always rewarded, mostly for the same reasons I didn't want to see it in the first place. So it is, once again, with Scum, Clarke's searing indictment of the Borstal youth prison system.
Facts of the Case
Carlin (Ray Winstone, The Departed), a hardcase youth, has been arrested for assaulting a police officer and is sent to a remote youth prison. As soon as he arrives, he witnesses first-hand the brutal treatment that the authorities, ostensibly there to teach and reform the kids, hand out to the inmates. He takes it in stride and endures it all because he has a plan. Quickly, he learns how the system works and begins exploiting it, gaining power over his fellow inmates and privileges from the authorities. Soon, he's the top man in the place and wields it just as brutally as the officers.
Grim. I could probably begin and end my review of Scum with that single word which wholly describes my feelings about the movie and about myself after watching it. That wouldn't go very well, though, toward my word count, so I guess I'll have to say a little more.
This wasn't my first ride on the Scum train, but it had been some time and, while I suppose I hadn't forgotten how rough it is, its impact did slip my mind. Its stark, minimal style and brutal violence hammer home Clarke's message about the awful Borstal system and make the audience really care for some truly troubled kids. They aren't all complete thugs like Carlin, though the place certainly has its share; some are there for very minor things and some are just simple runaways. Yet they all receive the same treatment regardless of offense and none of them deserve it.
Immediately upon the arrival of Carlin and two other new inmates, runaway Davis (Julian Firth, The Queen) and young black car thief Angel (Alrick Riley), they are subjected to bullying, abuse, and racism from the officers. Once they're allowed to go to their rooms, they are further subjected to it from their peers who want to demonstrate their dominance over the new blood. In most cases, they're successful, but Carlin won't have it. He endures it just long enough to make a few friends and figure out the game so he can take over, and take over he does. Through a series of brutal beatings involving fists, feet, pipes, and even billiard balls in a sock, it doesn't take him long to become the new "Daddy," taking over not only the alpha position among the kids, but the black market operation the administration encourages, as well.
The most interesting character in the film, though, is Archer (Mick Ford), a vegan atheist by his own word who eschews the violence of the place, refuses to wear shoes, and mocks the administration at every turn. He's smarter than everyone there, inmates and administration alike, and stays above it all while throwing it back in their faces. It keeps him in constant trouble, but he's prepared to serve out his entire sentence so he can prove his point, which he espouses in a long conversation with one of the wardens, where the quote in the Opening Statement comes from. It falls on deaf ears, of course, but he's so smug and self-satisfied that he really doesn't care.
Scum is less a story than a pointed expose of the very real problem of the Borstal system. Now, the system was on its way out anyway, but it was a real smack in the face to anyone who might have seen it. His idea was so controversial that Clarke made it twice. The first was commissioned by the BBC for television and, when they saw it, they refused to air it. So he collected his own money, got Winstone back (he played Carlin in the original, as well), and made it for theatrical release.
The way Clarke puts it together makes audiences feel like oppressed prisoners as much as the characters. The few scenes outside the prison involve running in step and shoveling coal in the snow; the rest of it is within the very strict confines of the institution. The film is stark white with no musical score, giving it a slow, oppressive feel. What's worse, Clarke holds all the violence a little too long, an extra punch during a beating here, a few beats more during a rape there. In this way, he bullies the audience as the inmates are bullied, making Scum an excruciating experience, one that may not be easy, but remains valuable thirty years after its release.
Scum arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in one of the best releases the label has put out in some time. Usually, their transfers feature little restoration, with improved detail but a wealth of dirt and damage. They could have done the same with this, given how the film has looked in the past but, instead, the image looks almost perfect. The detail is very strong and colors are realistic, with no noticeable instances of damage. The grain structure is natural and, really, the only problem at all is a little bit of overall softness which, in all likelihood, is intentional. Two audio options are available, a 5.1 Master Audio and a 2.0 PCM track. They're nearly the same, though the 5.1 track features some crowd noise and other ambiance in the rear speakers, but it's not apparent most of the time. Both are clear and sharp with dialog that sounds as good as it ever has.
Extras are very good, as well. Unlike the previous Blue Underground edition, this features only the theatrical release, so fans will want to hang on to the old one for the television version. What is included on the disc starts with an informative audio commentary with Winston and critic Nigel Floyd discussing multiple aspects of the film, from the details of the performance and production to its reception among censors, critics, and audiences. Winstone may be tough to understand at times, but what he says is intelligent and valuable. The disc continues with nearly an hour of interviews with the writer and producers, discussing many of the same issues from their own perspectives. A fifteen minute collection of interviews feature the actors reminiscing on their experiences making the film and working with Alan Clarke and a pair of trailers, one censored and the other not, close out the disc.
Scum isn't for everybody; its brutality and starkness will be off-putting to many. The power of the film is undeniable. Even if it doesn't have the relevance it had upon its release, there is still has a huge visceral impact. If you can stomach the violence and cruelty, the pristine transfer and valuable extras make this a must buy. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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