Starred Up (2014)
Dir: David Mackenzie
Prison’s long been a ripe setting for drama and The Prison Movie is a storied genre with many stellar entries. The past few years have seen some standouts from Europe, including the surreal Bronson from Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, and the Godfather-esque Un prophète from French visionary Jacques Audiard. You can now add the incendiary Starred Up to that list, as it’s a first rate masterpiece of the genre that delivers a cracking blow to staid senses.
Jack O’Connell gives a star-making performance as the 19 year old inmate Eric Love who’s been prematurely transferred to adult prison (“starred up” in UK slang) after a string of mostly unnamed offenses. The inhumanity of the intake system of prison is laid out in deliberate detail in the opening scenes as you begin to identify with this young man and the predatory environment he finds himself in. The movie then flips the switch and reveals – in a viciously violent sequence reminiscent of the end of Bronson – that Eric’s not mere prey for the plucking. He’s a slathering, wild-eyed predator, and once cornered he’ll not just bare his teeth – he’ll use them too.
Eric is given a reprieve by the prison’s independent-minded therapist Oliver Baumer (Homeland’s Rupert Friend), who insists to the warden that he can rehabilitate Eric by bringing him into his group sessions with some other fellow inmates. The movie knows what a cliché the passionate yet idiosyncratic mentor/therapist character is, and gets out in front of this by having the characters comment on it directly in a funny scene that calls to mind Good Will Hunting. Complicating matters is Eric’s estranged father Neville Love (the sneering Ben Mendelsohn, perfectly cast) who is banged up in the same cell block, and is looking to assert some belated fatherly wisdom in the form of controlling his wayward son.
O’Connell is a revelation here as he turns in a swaggering performance that makes Eric Love seem like the most dangerous man in the room – even against foes twice his size. He spits, steals, fights and curses his way through the penal system with reckless abandon. He is a force of nature that’s been unleashed in a confined space – a powder keg that’s gone off – and the reverberations are heard for miles. Mendelsohn (previously great in similar roles in Animal Kingdom and The Place Beyond the Pines) is a fitting foil for O’Connell. His Neville Love is a more inward but no less menacing man, one that has been in the system so long that he can manipulate it that much better.
With minimal music and a lack of showy camera flourishes, Starred Up instead focuses on verisimilitude and a strong sense of place. The film takes place entirely inside the prison and makes you feel the walls closing in. Shouted threats echo around the walls while guards, inmates, and even family members represent mortal threats that could strike at any time. The tension and anxiety drape over everything like a thick fog that won’t dissipate. Clipped dialogue and rising anger lead to bursts of brutal violence, and every slight is remembered and stored away, to be avenged sooner or later.
The movie breathes a bit in its middle section, which is devoted to the Machiavellian machinations of the various factors within the prison, as well as the inner workings and growing comradery that Eric feels within the therapy group. There’s even some gallows humour to be had, like when the group discusses the merits of cunnilingus or Eric disparages his own potential rehabilitation to prison staff because it will make their jobs redundant.
However, even as he makes hard-won steps towards self-awareness and breakthroughs, Eric’s enemies continue to close in and the hope for rehabilitation seems less and less likely. It all comes to a head in a breathless climax that elicits overwhelming dread and places its characters in some of the tightest spots in prison, then watches them try to scratch and claw their way out. Overall, Starred Up will leave you wrung out and drained, but in a cathartic and wholly satisfying way. The airtight plotting, absorbing performances, and well-defined sense of place lead to an exemplary Prison Movie and a crackerjack film. If you don’t watch Starred Up then you may get a shiv between the ribs during shower time, so why risk it?