At a time when “rehabilitation of youth” meant “beating them to hell and back,” there were obvious consequences and drawbacks. Such a system is bound to instil some form of hatred or pushback of power within those they wish to flatten the bumps out of. Scum, from director Alan Clarke, is a strong understanding of how and why this system does not work. It provides guards and teachers who provide the “boys will be boys” attitude and the young adults who, in their formative years, are beating one another with billiard balls, broken jaws and bloody mouths flailing around the mess hall, trying to figure out what the point of their life is.
They are in the slammer at an early age, and as the newest member of the British Borstal juvenile facility, Carlin (Ray Winstone) comes to terms with the comings and goings rather quickly. It is that inevitable theory of fight or flight. His response coaxes the best of both. He minds his business, puts up with Richards (Phil Daniels) and generally responds well to what is asked of him. That is a rather idyllic way of putting it, but Winstone carries the burden of leading man exceptionally well. He performs his role as the catalyst of change with great competency, challenging the real authority figures and that of Richards.
Prison systems are always seen as tough and gruelling hallways, gang warfare rife among those that seek some semblance of power. Scum manages that rather effectively, but Clarke’s direction suggests that, despite differences between each prisoner, their common goal of rehabilitation or escape is shared with some level of respect. It happens throughout Scum, the slight acts of rebellion the inmates present when fighting against the power above them is met with adulation or, at best, silence, from the opposing inmates who, moments ago, were beating and destroying their mental and physical wellbeing. It is not a harsh shift from enemy to friend, either, and despite the animosity and tension present in many scenes, there is the underlying change felt between Carlin and Richards. All of it comes through power, which is indeed the driving force behind their actions.
It is no surprise that Scum was skirting around the void of banned commodities. There is a brutal and realistic understanding found within, and despite its entertainment value, never steers away from the harsh and cutting message of juvenile reformation. Old hat values of the century behind us brought out in the harsh light of day. They are cruel and unremitting but brought out with such competence and confidence from Clarke’s direction. Chilling and violent, Scum is a brutal and tough realisation, one that is steeped in a familiar, dark realism matched only by the scum that brought its story to life.