Directed by David Mackenzie
Set entirely within the walls of a UK prison, Starred Up is concerned with two equally rigorous codes of ethics: both the hard-man standards of pride and knife’s-edge self-containment that obtain in lockup, and the morality of the seemingly remote but real world beyond. The title, slang for a young offender transferred to an adult facility, is a cue to think about the main character, nineteen-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), as a precocious lad: indeed, he’s both an animalistic scrapper capable of overcoming riot-geared guards and upending inmate hierarchies with a kick and a shiv, and also, eventually, the star pupil of volunteer prison shrink Oliver (Rupert Friend). Eric is a demanding but expansive role: some sort of superpowered savage innocent, capable of breaking the world or saving it. Rising Brit star O’Connell handles it with a showmanlike physique (though he’s not quite as hammy, in multiple senses, as Tom Hardy’s breakthrough role as another inmate, in Bronson), and a fresh, projectible face.
O’Connell is called upon to hold up his end of laconic, dick-measuring staredowns, and to give and receive bloody beatings, to scream in his cell, to be nearly garroted in a shower, and to hold a guard hostage by clamping his teeth around his genitalia, as Eric claws his way up a pecking order—encompassing both prisoners and their jailers—in which both coolheadedness and brutality can earn respect and subservience. He is also articulate, cocky and worldly, a natural leader, when in repose in group therapy sessions, where Oliver attempts to model an acceptable and conscious peace with one’s inevitable moments of dependence and confusion. (The screenwriter, Jonathan Asser, a poet and therapist, has previously worked with inmates.)
Clearly, Eric is Asser and director David Mackenzie’s conception of raw youthful talent to be either squandered or saved, with the prison milieu a very cinema-genic intensifier. So Eric’s prison wing becomes the village it takes to raise him: a teacher in Oliver; older peers from group and General Pop, to act as good or bad influences, bullies and guardians. And among all that, whaddaya know: it’s Eric’s actual father! As lifer Neville, making up for a lifetime of absence with terrible active parenting—playing stern disciplinarian dad by bossing Eric into line like he’s a new cellmate, or steaming against his hard-learned defenses when trying out a sensitive sweater-dad role—Ben Mendelsohn displays his full Ben Mendelsohn range, from zonked-out immobility to capable-of-anything psychotic lid-flipping. The film’s conflict is for Eric’s future: the different paths available to him give the movie a frankly polar structure, but are shaded with frequently compelling transitional textures. It is darkly amusing to see the inmates testing their way around therapy-speak, talking about trust and weakness in the same tone of voice that they say, “You’re getting blood on my floor, now fuck off.” (Too, Eric’s confused response to his father’s prison lover doesn’t fit neatly into any larger schematic, and though Mackenzie and Asser use it in Eric and Neville’s evolving child-is-father-to-the-man dynamic, they wisely leave it largely unresolved.)
Starred Up is initially effective in its manipulation of its audience. Eric’s first display of personality is an unjustified assault on a fellow inmate, and it takes several scenes for him to show a side of himself other than a penchant for brutal, preemptive, preening violence. The filmmakers encourage us to write off his changes, to root for him to rot behind bars, before allowing Oliver to reach him, open up new facets of his personality. Gradually, too, in a way that may be relevant to our current moment, and our understanding of rebels at home and abroad, the film shows how flawed, passionate individuals interact with an equally and differently flawed, basically omnipotent authority. (The hermetic space of the prison makes a good microcosm for the kinds of less visible social hierarchies which we’re more used to seeing engaged in a push-pull with antisocial behavior.) But Mackenzie and Asser ultimately go to far. The warden doesn’t just have regressive ideas about law and order, and the confidence of his government: he’s straight-up evil, which comes through via Sam Spruell’s sneering performance almost as much as the character’s eventually revealed hypocrisy and premeditated bad acts. (A more subtle movie would depict guard-on-prisoner violence more accurately, as a matter of impulse and cover-up carried out by people of ideological conviction.) The film loses its battle with contrivance, pitting family love against pantomime villainy in order to arrange a cross-cut rescue sequence with family redemption on the line.
Opens August 27