Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Sam Spruell
Length: 106 minutes
The vast majority of prison dramas are dedicated to either the capture and sentencing of criminal characters, or the escape of a wrongly convicted protagonist. Very few films are willing to take an unfiltered look at life inside detention facilities without the sheen of hope driving the plot along. Scum and Dog Pound are two notable exceptions and it is that gritty spirit that Starred Up takes its cues from.
The plot centres on nineteen-year-old Eric Love (O’Connell), who is “starred up” from a juvenile facility to an adult prison because of his uncontrollably violent behaviour. Once in his new surroundings, Eric has to keep his temper in check at the risk of aggravating his already precarious situation.
Complicating matters are the presence of his overbearing convict father, Neville (Mendelsohn), and prison governor Hayes Spruell) who has already decided Eric has no future. The only person on his side is volunteer prison therapist Oliver (Friend) who uses his small anger management group to both curb Eric’s temper and keep an eye out for him in the increasingly harsh environment.
It is a stripped down storyline, with the focus on the juxtaposition between Eric’s therapy with the daily aggression and unspoken hierarchies of the wing he finds himself transferred to. This grounded aesthetic is enhanced by the director’s decision to film everything using a hand-held camera and without the use of marks, allowing the actors to utilise the location to its full extent. Despite the simple filming techniques, the majority of the shots are beautiful, particularly the scenes involving the claustrophobic nature of solitary confinement.
The real star of the project, however, is O’Connell. In one of the best and, frankly, most underrated performances committed to screen this year, the young Brit grips the viewers’ attention in every single shot he is in. Make no mistake, O’Connell is definitely one to look out for.
The film’s greatest strength is its cast. Spruell and Friend make excellent use of their comparatively limited screen-time, their motivations shining through from the moment they appear on screen. Mendelsohn is fantastic and a true chameleon. The initial reaction to his character is one of loathing, especially when his son’s backstory is revealed. But over the course of the film his own story is gradually revealed and he tackles the unravelled complexities with a surprisingly steady hand.
The real star of the project, however, is O’Connell. In one of the best and, frankly, most underrated performances committed to screen this year, the young Brit grips the viewers’ attention in every single shot he is in. He handles both his character’s aggression and vulnerability with an assurance many of his peers are unlikely to ever achieve. Particularly impressive is a scene towards the end when the normally hostile Eric breaks down in his father’s arms for the first time in the film. Make no mistake, O’Connell is definitely one to look out for.
Alongside the direction and stellar acting, Jonathan Asser’s script deserves special praise. Using his experience as a former prison worker, he is able to paint a very authentic portrait of life behind bars. The highlights are the personal interactions between the characters, especially the father-son dynamic. If the screenplay has a weakness, it is that some of the action beats are predictable, although there are still enough surprises to keep the story moving.
Perhaps the biggest pitfall of the film is the sound editing, which leads to a noticeably muffled audio. This is fine for the scenes without any dialogue and, to a degree, actually enhances the visual quality of the violence that is so central to the plot. Unfortunately, it makes a lot of the conversations difficult to follow. This is made even more problematic by the fact that the characters have strong accents which can take time for viewers unfamiliar with them to get used to. Luckily, the physicality of the story successfully negates this discomfort, but it is still enough of a blip to prevent the film being completely perfect.
Starred Up does have its flaws, but they are minor compared to the extensive list of things it gets right. Its subject matter certainly makes it a difficult film to watch – the BBFC unsurprisingly gave it an 18 rating. However, it is one of those unmissable on-screen experiences that, hopefully, will get the recognition and accolades it deserves.