A great ripple effect is felt throughout David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, a gritty British prison drama that puts most gritty prison dramas to shame. Every character sets off another, whether it is a warden taunting a counselor or a deadbeat dad reappearing in his son’s life (and vice versa). Sometimes it’s quick with a blow to the head; other times it lingers as prisoners insult one another for a few minutes before exploding in rage. Who is responsible for these conditions? Can the anger be unlearned or managed better? What is the point of prison if not to rehabilitate? Mackenzie attempts to answer these questions, and though he must battle through common prison movie tropes (counselor with heart of gold, corrupt officials, etc.), he succeeds thanks in large part to the film’s performances.
Jack O’Connell plays Eric Love, a violent juvenile delinquent who’s been “starred up”: prematurely transferred from a juvie prison to an adult penitentiary. Although he’s only a boy compared to the prison’s men, Eric proves early on to be a resourceful young man, creating a makeshift screwdriver and a shiv shortly upon arriving. After a violent altercation with a fellow prisoner leads to a vicious encounter with the prison guards (including a difficult-to-watch scene involving a guard’s crotch and Eric’s teeth), the new inmate is given the option of either joining an anger management group led by Oliver (Rupert Friend, Homeland) or continuing on his path of self-destruction. After some convincing from his father/fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), Eric joins the program.
For a movie so visceral and loud, many of Starred Up’s finest moments appear during dialogue-free sequences. Eric puts on a silent front, complete with a brave face upon checking into the prison, undergoing inspection, and being led to his cell. The moment his cell door slams shut, however, we get a glimpse of the scared little boy hidden within as he puts his hands to his head and walks about nervously. We are rarely given this display of vulnerability during the rest of the film, but this perfectly sets up what’s to come. Another fine moment comes shortly after Neville discovers his son in the prison yard. He walks back to his own cell and looks at a drawing Eric drew him as a child — taped to a wall is a picture that says, “I love you daddy.”
The son is submissive around his father, but he’s extremely aggressive around everyone else. It’s a case of displacement that Oliver wants to help the starred-up prisoner overcome in a system that would rather see its inmates fail than succeed. Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Asser do not shy away from the ongoing debate regarding prison rehabilitation. Nearly every time Eric leaves a session with his anger management group, he is attacked or at the very least provoked. In such a harsh environment, how does one recover?
O’Connell’s performance is transformative, similar to Tom Hardy’s role as the title character in Bronson. O’Connell’s Eric may not share a similar build, but they share the same ferocity. As his weary yet dominant father, Mendelsohn continues to prove his worth as one of our great character actors (see Killing Them Softly, The Place Beyond the Pines, Girls, etc.). He is an example of what Eric could become if he doesn’t turn his back on what he is — though generally calmer, he’s just as capable of sudden violence. His son’s presence turns the life he’s made for himself upside down, but it ultimately gives him a renewed sense of purpose.
Asser’s dialogue isn’t always easy to understand, thanks to thick accents and prison talk, but that doesn’t stand in the way of the storytelling. The echoes of screams, visuals of destruction, and ever-escalating rage are more than enough to get the film’s point across, violently smashing together as engaging, if uneasy, material. As for the final shot, it won’t be spoiled here, but there isn’t a word to be heard. The sound effect should leave an impression on how you feel about Starred Up, both the movie and its message.