Surviving Desire: The Cinema of David Mackenzie

The films of David Mackenzie envision life as a never-ending whirlwind of experience, a cyclone of emotion spinning out of control.
Glenn Heath Jr.


Hold me. Thrill me. Kiss me. Kill me. The films of David Mackenzie envision life as a never-ending whirlwind of experience, a cyclone of emotion constantly spinning out of control. These feelings are heightened and externalized through melodrama, yet they can also simmer under the surface like hidden secrets waiting to explode. While his exhausted characters never fit into one social class – pop stars, artisan chefs and thuggish bruisers all take center stage – each sees the world in a similarly warped way. They are confused by inadequacy, defined by repression, purposefully solitary, and bordering on self-destruction. But most importantly they are also eager to transcend this unhappiness, especially after finding inspiration in another equally tormented individual. One must simply desire the opportunity to grow, to live, to survive.

Mackenzie’s key battleground is the romantic relationship. Incited by knowing eye contact and waged through a sensual collision of skin, these trysts end in epiphany, tragedy, and many variations in between depending on the genre. The British auteur has experimented with the musical, coming-of-age story, period piece, and prison film, but this tonal flexibility never diminishes the consistency and power of his thematic interests. Internal apocalypse might always be on the precipice, but it’s never rendered through anything less than a sublime lens and lyrical sense of time and place. As the universe fades to black (either figuratively or quite literally), the process of becoming someone new remains poetic.


“I found a rose in another man’s garden.” This quote from Mackenzie’s eccentric Hitchockian debut, The Last Great Wilderness (2002), sums up a beginning of sorts for nearly every one of his protagonists. Adultery and infidelity are elemental incidents invigorated by the dangerous qualities of moral compromise. In Young Adam (2003), before we know anything about Joe’s (Ewan McGregor) torrid and scattered past he effortlessly seduces Ella (Tilda Swinton) simply to pass the time. Their physicality is magnetic but also haphazard and ill conceived, as much to do with spatial closeness as perceived intimacy; the two live in close quarters on the river barge operated by Ella’s impotent husband Les (Peter Mullan). It’s not love, but a chance to outwardly express one’s confusion with the world. This is Mackenzie’s conflicted status quo.

Young Adam

Marked by sexuality, none of the director’s films are actually sexy. This has to do with the way his characters see the world. Society has trained them to be distrusting and cowardly, a result of being stymied for so long by past traumas and inhibited libidos. Normally, Mackenzie’s protagonists witness romance and lust from the fringes until they finally act on their urges either violently or recklessly. This is what happens in Asylum (2005), Mackenzie’s one film centered on a woman. Natasha Richardson plays Stella, the wife of a high-ranking administrator at a mental hospital in the British countryside who becomes infatuated with a male inmate (Hugh Bonneville). She watches him watch her until it becomes too much for them to bear, their bodies colliding for the first time in a glass terrarium outside the view of a prying doctor (Ian McKellan). Needless to say, they don’t understand the impending consequences or the depths of their delusion until it’s too late.

Emotional displacement works as an origin story in Hallam Foe (2007) as well. During the opening scene, Jamie Bell’s titular loner perches himself in a tree house and observes a couple make love in the forest. He draws their picture, attempting to reconcile the foreignness of the physical act on display. This is an important prologue for a film about vantage points, voyeurism, and eclectic passion, essentially the love child of Les vampires and Rushmore. Seconds later he zip lines down screaming bloody murder, interrupting coitus like some insurgent waging war against intimacy. If he can’t have it, no one can.

The narcissist played by Ashton Kutcher in Spread (2009) is Hallum’s inverted doppelganger, all swagger and outward charisma with nothing but vapid empty space on the inside. Nikki even admits as much through his eye-roll inducing voice-over saying, “I am an incredibly attractive man.” By far Mackenzie’s most visually accomplished work, Spread is classical Hollywood cinema for the modern age, splintered by shotgun blasts of vanity and technology with a subverted sense of gender roles. Nikki uses sex to survive and sustain his immaturity, a parasite that slyly plays on older women’s desires to appropriate their property and money. Once imbedded he digs in for good, creating a fantasy for the female host while furthering his own wobbly constructed California dream.

Mackenizie’s last three films – You Instead (2011), Perfect Sense (2011), and Starred Up (2013)—are each extremely ambitious in their creation of origin stories within intense closed off ecosystems: a music festival, quarantined Scotland, and a maximum-security prison. In these environments young people struggle to transcend their emotional hang-ups until a drastic shift occurs. Something or someone demands that their unhappiness must be addressed, and change comes in a titanic instant.


Mackenzie’s aesthetics are more avant-garde than they seem, with clues sprinkled throughout seemingly innocuous shot/reverse-shot discussions. In most of his work, there is one pivotal dialogue scene where new feelings are triggered in the protagonist, something beyond the cynicism they usually associate with communication and desire. Jarring cuts and extreme close-ups help construct these moments and differentiate them from Mackenzie’s go to gracefulness. 

Hallam Foe exhibits one of the most interesting examples. After its hero moves to London for a fresh start, he becomes infatuated with a woman named Kate (Sophia Myles) who bears a striking resemblance to his dead mother. The two share a drink at a busy pub, and as the pints continuously flow, Mackenzie disrupts the normal shot continuity with sudden twin close-ups suggesting a lock between the characters’ gaze. The increase in stylistic energy represents a spark in their sexual relationship, but instead of leaning on the actors to convey the increased chemistry, Mackenzie takes it upon himself to clash these associative images through montage. 

Hallam Foe

Similar aesthetic triggers can be found in the wordless and moody interplay of Young Adam, which feels even more intoxicated and woozy thanks to its setting being rocked back and forth by the ocean waves. If not as dynamic, the sexualized meet-cute scenes in Asylum and Perfect Sense are both dependent on eye-line matches that insinuate a shift in attention. The idea that we are constantly and ravenously observing others is an idea Mackenzie appreciates, giving his films a rare unpredictability that can be found in any one moment.

Starred Up owes much of its tension to this formal approach, keeping the narrative perspective tied to young offender Eric (Jack O’Connell) as he enters an adult prison where his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is already a resident. The camera pans and tilts according to his point-of-view, scanning the details of confinement including the loud slamming of doors and the echoed screams of caged individuals. Wordless threat assessments between beastly men replace any notion of flowery romance. Part of the plot hinges on Eric’s involvement in an anger management group made up of equally volatile inmates. It’s in these sessions that Mackenzie’s use of point-of-view becomes crucial. Eye contact incites anger between the inmates, and the camera charts how rage jumps from man to man like an infectious disease. 

If Starred Up is Mackenzie’s most primitive look at how we trigger emotions in each other, Spread remains his most glamorous and hollow example. Early in the film he establishes that the camera will be just as wily and horny as the lead character, obsessed with flesh and shiny surfaces. During the film’s first elaborate tracking shot, Nikki enters a swanky Hollywood club while Mackenzie’s roving shot veers in an alternate direction, following a woman’s posterior up a stairwell before turning and finding him again looking out over the courtyard from a terrace above. The shot eventually ends with the character latching on to a wealthy older woman (Anne Heche) after the two cross paths, marking the director as a kind of accomplice to Nikki’s rampant manipulation.

Motifs of drowning children, suicide, and romantic disaster also prove that Mackenzie is indeed fascinated by the destruction of internal and external self through the camera, the ways in which we crumble onscreen. Still, to call his oeuvre pessimistic would be wrongheaded. These films explore humanity’s darkest impulses, but also present second chances to characters that deserve them, complicating the journey at large.


Before one can evolve one must adapt, and circumstance invades each Mackenzie film in unique ways. Two musicians are handcuffed and forced to perform together in You Instead. The pair of drifters at the center of The Last Great Wilderness must spend the night at a desolate hotel with a group of cult members in the Scottish moors. The protagonists of Asylum and Starred Up are prisoners in one form or another. Spread, Hallam Foe, and Young Adam all showcase men who flounder when they are asked to be brave. Perfect Sense makes this a global issue, examining the way humanity can acclimate to a world stripped of taste, sound, and touch.

Within the confines of these experiences each character has the opportunity to change, sometimes more than once. They don’t always seize the day. Young Adam remains Mackenzie’s most disturbing film for this very reason, giving Joe multiple chances to step up and take responsibility for his actions and watching him flounder every one. The final shot hovers on his indecisive face until he turns and walks away in shame, an indictment of the man’s rotting selfishness and denial. The public suicide that shatters the final moments of Asylum is equally grim but fitting considering its condemnation of institutions run by old white men.

Despite the ghastly murder that ends The Last Great Wilderness, the film provides a strangely jolly denouement. Driving away from the nightmarish hotel for the last time, Charlie (Alastair Mackenzie) smiles into the camera having finally realized the importance of this insane vacation from his normal suffering life. Both Hallam Foe and Spread deny their male heroes a chance to live happily ever after with the female leads, but find hope in the fact that each is far better equipped to appreciate women as human beings rather than objects.

The Last Great Wilderness

You Instead, Mackenzie’s most frivolous film, concludes rather predictably when compared to its zany set-up. It has a drowsy, hallucinatory vibe that’s a byproduct of being trapped at a muddy, drug fueled music festival, but during the final concert scene Mackenzie decides to turn up the schmaltz for a final kiss between the bickering couple projected in front of a massive adorning crowd.

The devastating concluding scene of Perfect Sense is revelatory for its optimism under fire. Mackenzie cuts to black immediately when Susan (Eva Green) and Michael (Ewan McGregor) embrace after losing their eyesight, the final stage in a crippling epidemic that has stripped all of humanity of their senses. It’s a last shot that confirms our ability to survive no matter the circumstances, as long as we have each other.

Starred Up puts a gruff spin on this same thematic conclusion. Eric and Neville are forced to part ways after a thwarted assassination attempt, but before doing so share a compassionate moment that up to this point has seemed impossible to fathom. Unlike Perfect Sense, there’s no swooning crescendo of music to compliment the tenderness, only the squeaking sound of metal turnstiles that provide the final aesthetic gut punch for a story that revolves around innocence lost and masculinity run amok.

Taken as a whole, Mackenzie’s cinema battles against stagnation and isolation. Good or bad, his characters are eternally feeling things, grappling with the volatility of every second lived. How they express themselves distinguishes the rhythm and style of each film. Mackenzie is a talented humanist keenly aware of the prescient reality that any of us can be devoured by emotion without ever realizing why. This sounds infinitely scary until you realize it’s not. What’s truly frightening are the limitations we place on ourselves so we can feel nothing, the rationalizations we’ve inherited from society that marginalize our individuals spirits. Mackenzie’s cinema reclaims the personal sensory experience, one for you and one for me.

Perfect Sense

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