Directed By: David Mackenzie
Written By: Jonathan Asser
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
There are movies that make you think. There are movies that make you question. There are movies that engage you to such a degree you are left emotionally exhausted when all is said and done. Then there are movies like Starred Up that make you do all three and so much more. Director David Mackenzie and screen writer Jonathan Asser have come together to create authentic take on the harsh conditions of prison life in Britain. Raw, brutal, and surprisingly heartfelt it examines the person behind the prison number. Never does it ever attempt to forgive its characters malicious actions—rather it brings us into the hellacious depths of their unruly world.
The term ‘Starred Up’ refers to a juvenile who is transferred early to adult prison due to violent behavior. Jack O’Connell plays our main vice as Eric Love who has recently undergone the ‘Starred Up’ treatment. Mackenzie and Asser make the conscious choice to not show the life of anyone outside the prison walls. Not that they needed too. Within the first few moments it is evident Eric has a strong familiarity with prison life. We see him use the small amount of personal belongings he is allowed in inventive ways to prepare himself for prison life. Right away it is apparent Eric knows his way around a prison cell.
Immediately it is also apparent O’Connell is not your average actor. Starred Up has a lot to take away from it, and perhaps the most notable is the performance of O’Connell. He is someone you are not only scared of but scared for. Full or rage and constant regret he appears trapped in his own chemical unbalance and tragic upbringing. The slightest spark can set him off into a fit of uncontrollable anger. O’Connell brings a hard-edged innocence that serves as a reminder of the lost youth underneath. There are brief instances where you see his shields break down. After steeling gum from another prisoner we get to see him hide and chuckle like a younger brother who just pulled a prank on his older sibling. For a fleeting instance he has an opportunity to act his age. You are afraid of what he is capable of, but also afraid of what might happen to him.
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact his estranged father is also sharing a cell block with him. This impromptu family reunion does more to complicate matters then assist in Eric’s rehabilitation. Ben Mendelsohn plays Eric’s father Neville and reminds everyone that he is an extremely underrated actor. Mendelsohn and O’Connell play off each other brilliantly. Mendelsohn has a similar vicious fortitude of O’Connell but it is more seasoned and reserved, like a rusted coiled spring ready to explode. Neville see’s this new situation as an opportunity to gain a relationship with his son. He wishes to be his gateway into surviving this lawless kingdom. Getting in the way of that plan is his prison counselor Oliver Baumer.
Rupert Friend as Oliver rounds out an impressive trifecta of acting talent. Oliver is a volunteer prison therapist who gives his time to help inmates work through their issues. He runs a group session where prisoners have an opportunity to try and better themselves. When this storyline approaches warning lights of possible excessively sentimentalized breakthrough moments begin to flash feverishly. Those warning signs proved to be a false alarm as these class scenes are some of the best moments in the movie. Tension is thick as the threat of violence is always lurking. The wrong word or the wrong gesture can ignite extreme rage. Besides the heart pounding anticipation there is also an opportunity to see what lead people to their situation, and as the film constantly reminds us it shows there is humanity behind the inhumane.
Throughout there is a strong foundation authenticity. Part of that could be due to Jonathan Asser’s time as a real life therapist volunteer. Clearly he comes from a point of view that has experienced this broken system. One that is passionate about those problems and willing to ask the tough questions most choose to ignore. Making us look at the peak of inhumanity and asking what should do in return. In brief instances that message is applied too bluntly. Mostly in regards to a Deputy Governor who becomes a convenient antagonist, and is rather one note compared to the rest of the film.
Director David Mackenzie and cinematographer Michael McDonough utilize the space to give it an oppressive atmosphere. Using a number of long tracking shots we see these characters navigate this space to emphasize how confined they really are. Specifically during the final confirmation between father and son this is a vertical tracking shot of the gradual ascension and dissension of the cell block stairs. With the caged staircase we are unable to see inside this journey. We are only able to witness the end result.
Starred Up never tries to indicate the people stuck in the prison system do not belong, instead it is about discovering what should be done once they arrive. Within this message the characters are never left behind. In fact its the crafting of its characters that makes its point even stronger. You empathize, you fear, and you become invested in lives that have been thrown away. Starred Up is as much about recognizing our own humanity as it is about seeing life from a new perspective.