Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: Starred Up

by Patrick Bromley
Brace yourselves. This one is heavy.

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.
Jack O'Connell plays Eric, a juvenile who is transferred to an adult prison -- the same prison that houses his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). While Eric rages and lashes out at everyone and everything, his father attempts to maintain the balance of power in place among the prisoners while a prison therapist (Rupert Friend) does his best to break through to Eric and save him from a life defined by violence.

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.
Starred Up is a heavy drama that avoids almost every single trope of traditional dramas -- even prison dramas, a much narrower subgenre to which this film belongs. There are no big dramatic speeches, no overwrought reconciliations. There are machinations in place -- a sort of "lead villain" who is pulling the strings from his cell and who poses the greatest threat to Eric (even though the kid is mostly unaware...or simply doesn't give a shit). That stuff interested me less. While I'm sure it's a mostly-accurate representation of prison power structures, it's the most plot-heavy material in the film. The character work is better.

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.
That's the best thing about Starred Up: it's as gritty and rough a prison movie as I've ever seen, but it never loses sight of the humanity. It recognizes these men who have otherwise been written off by society as people first, inmates second, even in the smallest of ways. Look at the way Eric savagely attacks a fellow inmate,  immediately feeling terrible when he realizes he's gone too far. Then he attacks the guards sent to deal with him, and that's brutal and violent, too. Again he explains that it was truly a mistake and immediately we are reminded of what a scared, vulnerable kid Eric is. Our heart breaks for him despite the horrible things he's just done. The movie allows him to be more than just an inmate. More than a savage. It allows him to be human.

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.


  1. Great review. Sounds tough but rewarding. I'll keep my eye out for this one. Cheers

  2. I really wanted to go support this at the cinema but it didn't work out. After reading this I am going to seek it out as Dennis says, it sounds rewarding.