The title Starred Up refers to the premature transferal of a juvenile to adult prison. In the case of this film, directed by David Mackenzie, said juvenile is 19-year-old inmate Eric Love played with utter ferocity by Jack O’Connell. The overall awe I felt in watching O’Connell here is like the first time I saw Tom Hardy in Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Bronson, though, while both films focus on unstable prison inmates, you have to strip away all the dark humor and absurdity of Bronson before you can get to the harsh, real world, brutal intensity of Starred Up and it doesn’t let up for a second.
Eric Love’s transfer comes as a result of his violent nature and Mackenzie introduces the audience to Eric’s new environment right along with the young man — strip off your clothes, raise your arms, squat, put your clothes on. He’s ushered down the cell block wing that will serve as his new home for the years to come and once inside his cell we witness a brief moment of pained reflection, but it doesn’t last long.
When it comes to O’Connell’s physical dominance, the young actor is clearly fit, but in no way would he be physically menacing based on stature alone. This is where the beauty of his performance lies. The fierce nature of his glare, his merciless attitude and downright threatening delivery of dialogue quickly establish a character not to be fucked with. He may be a boy among men, but he isn’t to be taken lightly.
The complexity of the story, however, is beyond just mere violent tendencies. Eric’s father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is one of Eric’s fellow inmates, an unlikely family reunion for most fathers and sons, but in this case it seems just about right. Neville has been inside for some time, built a network of acquaintances and is feared himself by many on the inside. His way of parenting isn’t much different, choosing to bark orders in Eric’s face. The reigniting of a tenuous relationship that will clearly have issues.
Eric almost immediately finds himself into trouble, but this trouble also finds him a possible awakening, a clear cliche in this sort of film, but not a long-lived one as Starred Up isn’t interested in exploring cliches.
Rupert Friend plays Oliver, a volunteer prison therapist who leads a group for inmates just like Eric, teaching them to use words instead of violence to work through their issues. Oliver intervenes just as Eric has his mouth clamped down on one of the guard’s genitals and won’t let go in defense of being clubbed once more. After persuading Eric to loosen his grip, Oliver negotiates for him to join his group, but the prison’s higher ups are keeping the young man on a tight leash.
These are the complex dynamics of Starred Up, a film written by Jonathan Asser, a first timer whose background is working as a therapist in the British penal system. First and foremost you could probably call the film a father-son drama within the confines of a prison, but at the same time both prison and inmate politics play a huge role.
O’Connell gives a star-turning performance, Mendelsohn is as great as you’ve ever seen him, again playing a lower class citizen with might and gusto, and Friend is outstanding as a compassionate therapist whose reason for being there in the first place adds another layer to an onion of a film you may never stop peeling. But I also found tremendous amounts of emotional highs and lows in the supporting cast, most notably the members of Oliver’s group, many of which whose character names I could never quite catch, all largely due to how intense each of their scenes are and the authenticity of their conversations and/or arguments. It gets to a point where a mere fist bump says so much about what’s going on between these fellas and it’s a beautiful thing to see.
Visually, Starred Up almost feels like a documentary. Cinematographer Michael McDonough goes largely hand-held for the duration, slicing through the swath of inmates as prison chatter and the clanging of metal fills your ears. However, in one instance specifically, McDonough keeps the camera steady on Eric as he speaks, a dingy yellow wall behind him and real emotion beginning to pour out. As such, I also have to mention production designer Tom McCulloch whom you could argue didn’t have a ton of work to do since the production made use of a former, fully intact prison, but the authenticity can’t be argued.
I was, honest to God, blown away by Starred Up and the absolute intensity of the picture and ferocious nature of O’Connell’s performance. This is the film to see before O’Connell becomes a star as he is set to headline Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken at the end of 2014. This is the film you’ll reference the next time David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) directs another feature and Jonathan Asser writes another screenplay. This is ground floor excellence and you’re going to want to get in before this elevator goes to the top.
SIDE NOTE: The film uses a lot of legitimate “prison speak” for its dialogue and included in the press notes is a glossary of terms. I felt it would be helpful to share that glossary with you as this film is currently available On Demand and on iTunes right now.