by Patrick Bromley
The British prison drama Starred Up is the kind of film we rarely get from today's studio system: one that manages to be tough as nails and emotionally wrenching without once feeling manipulative. So authentic are its performances and setting that to see the movie is to be transported to a place with which most of its audience will (hopefully) never be familiar. It's downright anthropological in the way it studies both the inside of a prison and inside the lives of the people locked within it.
While never heavy on style -- he opts for a grounded, realistic approach -- director David Mackenzie (who also made the Ashton Kutcher vehicle Spread a couple years ago; how the same man is responsible for both films I have yet to reconcile) embraces storytelling that is, at times, purely visual. Long stretches of the film feel less like narrative than they do documentary. That's probably because first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser spent 12 years working as a prison therapist and drew on those experiences here. The result is a movie that feels alive and totally real, and which understands the (often broken) system and how each of its participants is caught in it.
As someone who never watched the UK drama Skins (for which Jack O'Connell is probably best known), the lead performance by O'Connell caught me off guard. It's ferocious, physical work, and O'Connell has to find the humanity inside someone animalistic -- he's entirely violence and rage. While both O'Connell and Asser's script don't excuse Eric for he's actions, there is the understanding that he is not entirely responsible for the way he has turned out. It's an amazing performance, one which feels so lived-in that I had to remind myself this was a character created by an actor in a movie. It's some next-level work. Ben Mendelsohn is equally great, but that almost goes without saying at this point as he's consistently one of the best thing about any film in which he appears. His Nev is hard to pin down; we don't know what angle he's working (if any), and that makes him scary. The last scene he shares with O'Connell, which is almost entirely wordless, is beautiful and heartbreaking and full of humanity.
Starred Up was part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival back in May but was one of the screenings I unfortunately had to miss. I'm glad to have caught up with it. It's a powerful film, one that's willing to show man's ugliest nature in one scene and embrace the possibility of hope, of growth and of forgiveness in the next. It deserves your attention.
Starred Up is currently in limited release and is available via VOD and iTunes.