Starred Up (2014)

Starred Up played this week at the tail end of the Fall Focus presented by Independent Film Festival Boston. Though technically a 2013 release, the British prison drama has yet to really come out stateside and remains very much a movie of interest. Part of this is due to the recent emergence of Jack O’Connell on the international stage – he carried the little-seen ’71 and will carry the likely-to-be-widely-seen Unbroken, and he’s even in the Oscar conversation for the latter. O’Connell’s been in a bunch of stuff prior to the last few years, and his young role in the comparatively weak Michael Fassbender film Eden Lake probably foreshadows what’s to come most effectively. But if you want top-notch O’Connell in a nearly-top-notch film, Starred Up is the one to check out.

The prison genre is a storied one in film. Starred Up is a very different movie than Bronson – one of the most brilliant entries in the genre in recent memory – but it still recalls the 2008 Tom Hardy flick a little too heavily at times. This might be an inescapable element of the genre – it’s a prison movie, what did you expect? – but it might also be because O’Connell’s Eric Love simply seems to want the incredible amount of violence swirling around his little stone cell. Bronson and Love seem to share that from the outset – there is a scene in both films in which guards pile up outside the cell door in full riot gear as the gleeful prisoner, be it the hulking Bronson or the roguish Love, douses himself in oil and and prepares for the fight. The fight seems ritualistic, and for Bronson it certainly is. It’s sport. But this is where Starred Up and Eric Love diverge, and while it’s not necessarily a better film it’s certainly a more grounded, realistic genre entry.

We meet Eric as he’s “starred up” – as he ages out of juvie and gets transferred to Big Boy Jail – and the aforementioned fight scene occurs on his very first day. It turns out that his father, Neville, played by Killing Them Softly‘s beautifully sleazy Ben Mendelsohn, is also incarcerated at this particular Big Boy Jail, and Neville kind of sees this as a chance to be there for the kid he abandoned nearly twenty years ago. Other forces suddenly a part of Eric’s life are the volunteer prison psychologist Oliver, played by Homeland‘s Rupert Friend, and the warden figure played by Sam Spruell.

Eric’s problem, again, is that he’s violent. He’s very, very violent, so much so that the slightest provocation would result in a no-holds-barred beatdown. The way O’Connell plays this makes it seem as if this tendency toward violence almost takes over what might otherwise be a well-meaning youngster – he accidentally knocks another prisoner unconscious, tries to plead his way out of the situation by describing the accident as such, but when that fails to work he retreats to his cell and removes his clothes and prepares for battle. This sense that there’s more to Eric than the fighting becomes a primary focus of the film. Oliver, the psychiatrist, believes without reservation that Eric can change his ways; the warden staunchly believes the opposite. Eric’s father wants what’s best for his son, but that’s only taking him at his word – his actions, unfortunately, continuously push the Violent Eric back to the surface, because he’s prone to violence as well.

So getting starred up is a pretty harrowing experience for Eric, although he’d never admit to anything of the sort. Out in the yard and in the hallways of the prison O’Connell’s Eric is cool as a cucumber, but when we see him alone in his cell it’s apparent that this stuff definitely reaches him on an emotional level. Some of the best scenes in Starred Up aren’t the fight scenes but the prison therapy sessions with Rupert Friend’s Oliver, and the Oliver-Eric relationship is one of the things that makes the film stand out among countless other prison films.

The flip side is the figure of the warden (not technically a warden, but close enough), who disappointingly sticks to the prison genre expectations seemingly prescribed to any character of similar authority. He doesn’t believe for a second that Eric can change his violent ways, and his blindness to the progress that Oliver makes with the young prisoner is frustrating to watch. It’s also a bit cliché, if not altogether unrealistic, to have someone who behaves this way. At worst, it’s a rote genre vestige that serves to undermine the otherwise inspired relationships that are unique to Starred Up.

Aside from the overly-familiar warden and the inevitable comparisons to movies like Bronson, the drama of Starred Up is fresh, intense and highly entertaining. Director David Mackenzie is no newcomer, having helmed the explicitly sexual Young Adam and the explicitly uninteresting Spread, but Starred Up is his most coherent and affecting effort to date. No word yet on what his next project might be, but Mackenzie is certainly a director to watch. Until then, Starred Up is highly recommended.

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