While it is a mix of familiar elements to be expected from its main subjects, “Starred Up” is a compelling mix to watch none the less. Mainly through its violent young antihero with issues, it transfers us into a harsh, brutal world behind prison walls, and then it strikes us through his constant clash with this cruel world which is always ready to punish its denizens with no mercy. Yes, this is indeed something we have encountered many times before, and I was naturally reminded of other similar films during my viewing, but the movie is a riveting prison drama pulsating with its gritty realistic style and, above all, a remarkable breakout performance worthy of the praises it has been gathering.
When we meet Eric Love(Jack O’Connell) for the first time, he has just arrived at a prison where he is going to serve out the rest of his sentence. The opening scene effectively sets the tone as calmly observing prison officers processing him step by step. After his transfer is registered, he is ordered to take off his clothes, and then the prison officers thoroughly examine his body for a while. New prison clothes are given to him after that, and then we see him being passed through several metal safety doors to arrive in his cell.
He looks quite young compared to other prisoners, but we learn later that he was sent from the institution for juvenile offenders to this place due to his extremely violent behaviors(the title of the movie is a British term for describing the early transfer of a criminal from a young offender institution to an adult prison). He certainly looks anxious when he is finally left alone in his cell, but this is a tough lad with experiences, and he soon prepares himself up to face his new harsh environment; he makes a sharp weapon using a toothbrush and a metal piece and then finds a good place to hide it, and he also does some push-ups with his fists.
He quickly becomes a new walking trouble in the prison mainly thanks to his hair-trigger temper and anti-social attitude. It is just a small misbehavior around meal time at first, but then he gets himself into a serious trouble when he happens to nearly kill an innocent inmate. He immediately regrets about that, but he responds with more sound and fury when prison officers are going to seize him and then punish him for that.
Jack O’Connell, a young British actor whom we will see again in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming movie “Unbroken”, is simply electrifying in his impressive physical performance. O’Connell does not say much during the aforementioned opening scene, but his face and gestures are more than enough to fully establish his character, and then he galvanizes several violent moments with the full swagger reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange”(1971) and Tom Hardy in “Bronson”(2008). When Eric goes ballistic in his cell as a group of heavily equipped prison officers are about to suppress him, he is determined to resist against them by any means necessary even though he has no chance of winning, and we cannot help but feel his volcanic fury as watching his body literally vibrating with it. Pouring oil on his body just for making the prison officers’ job difficult is merely the first step for him – he is even willing to bite off a certain body part of some very unlucky prison officer at one point.
And we also gradually come to see a damaged kid behind these extreme behaviors of his. Jonathan Asser’s screenplay wisely avoids the pitfalls of explaining more than necessary(the screenplay was inspired by Asser’s own experience as a voluntary therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth), and it slowly lets us gather several pieces of information about Eric’s history of childhood abuse and trauma for ourselves as listening to Eric’s casual remarks on his past(but it will be sometimes difficult for some of you to understand the dialogues in the film because of accents and slangs).
At least, he gets some help from two different characters – for now. One is a group therapist named Oliver(Rupert Friend), and he manages to persuade Deputy Governor Hayes(Sam Spruell) that he can help Eric dealing with his temper problem, but his group session with Eric and other inmates is always fraught with the potentials of sudden physical clash, while all Oliver can do for them is continuing his session as much as he can with necessary moderation. Friend, O’Connell, and the other actors are very convincing in their uneasy sessions scenes which are equivalent of emotional minefield; any thoughtless word can be led to a violent outburst at any point, and that usually means another frustrating end of session for all of them.
The other one is Nevile(Ben Mendelsohn), Eric’s father who has already been in the prison for quite a long time. Neville tries to help and protect his son in his own way while attempting to reconnect with him, but it does not go as well as he initially thought. He may be a little more mild-tempered than he was, but Neville begins to show his old hot temper while trying to make Eric a little more obedient to the system which will hold them for many years to come, and we can clearly see the inheritance of violence through his tough conflict with Eric. Mendelsohn, who was memorable as one of the amoral criminal characters in “Animal Kingdom”(2010), gives another exceptional performance which supports O’Connell well along with Friend’s equally good performance, and the dynamic relationship between their characters works a fascinating center of the movie.
Wholly focusing on his characters and their closed world, the director David Mackenzie imbues his film with that confined ambience of prison. The cinematographer Michael McDonough is rarely static while never losing the sense of confinement within its widescreen, and his camera smoothly moves along with characters during a couple of crucial scenes in the film for generating considerable amount of verisimilitude.
I must point out that the third act of the movie is a little weak in comparison because of its rather contrived climax, but that part mostly works as a payoff for what has been established during the rest of the story, and the movie remains to be very satisfying thanks to its direction and performances on the whole. It does not break any new ground in its territory, but it is surely a well-made work with one hell of performance which introduces us another interesting actor to watch.