There’s a natural expectation that stories set in prison should have an inescapable sense of claustrophobia. Inmates powerless against the concrete walls of their cells around them or crammed into hallways that can barely fit two men abreast.
But one of the striking characteristics about David Mackenzie
’s “Starred Up
” (available on VOD now in and select theaters
through the end of September) is its ability to make the prison environment feel somehow cavernous. As we follow the various stratified players around this tightly constructed tale of tenuous interpersonal connections, there’s always a sense that there’s an empty void behind them, a larger area for them to discover. Which makes it all the more crushing when these central figures are prevented from exploring that physical or metaphorical space, whether stopped by their own rage, the mistakes of their past or a system bent on keeping them in place.
Although Jonathan Asser’s script shows an adept ability to relate to any number of inhabitants of this correctional facility, the story is largely filtered through the experiences of fresh inmate Eric Love (Jack O’Connell). Eric is silent throughout the film’s first ten minutes, a prologue of sorts as we’re introduced to the prison’s geography, with its endless hallways, tiered levels and multiple wings.
As the title would suggest to those familiar with the finer points of British prison terminology
, Eric has been bumped from juvenile detention to a center alongside adults. But instead of being in over his head amongst a new set of peers, Eric takes to his new surroundings alarmingly quick, prison MacGyver tactics and all. Part of the explanation of this young man’s comfort level comes from the fact that his father Nev (perpetual MVP Ben Mendelsohn) is not only a felon himself, but housed at the same facility.
Despite having his father in such close proximity (or likely because of it), Eric soon finds himself the subject of disapproval from both the entrenched senior inmates and prison upper management. After his lethally-short temper and resultant violent outbursts lead nearly everyone to write him off as unmanageable, staff member Oliver (Rupert Friend) argues that his anger management group might offer Eric the best chance at a productive future.
The father-son dynamic forms the narrative backbone of “Starred Up
,” but this support group is where Asser’s dialogue really sings. No doubt drawn largely from Asser’s career as a prison psychologist, these scenes make the case for a more nuanced approach to mental health within the justice system better than most advocacy docs could. While there are certainly tensions between Oliver and his patients, there’s plenty of verbal spats between the group members themselves. This uneasiness permeates all levels of the prison’s social structure and keeps the story’s conflict from settling along easy hierarchical, class or racial lines. A Very Special Prison Episode this is not.
Behind the camera, Mackenzie and DP Michael McDonough lend everyday occurrences of incarcerated life a finely choreographed touch that make them feel like something out of a ballet film. One early scene flows flawlessly from Eric’s perspective to his bureaucratic overlords, all pivoting around a single, fluid camera movement. Eric’s quick pilfering of a small item from a floormate’s cell seems almost effortless as we glide along the prison’s atrium, catching the tiniest glimpse of the young man’s self-satisfaction as we go. Hovering over Eric’s shoulder during a fight training sequence, the audience seems to have just as good of footwork as the pupil on display.
A majority of “Starred Up” reviews have noted that comparisons between the multifaceted physicality of O’Connell’s performance and Tom Hardy’s in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson
” are near inescapable. But where Refn’s film lent a biting air of theatricality to its star, Mackenzie manages to preserve that same volatility without any of the antics. If Hardy’s Bronson was a wild grizzly bear, overpowering his adversaries until brought down by a metaphorical tranquilizer gun, O’Connell’s Eric is a coiled python, ready to unleash himself at the slightest provocation and fall an opponent before he realizes he’s even a target.
The most compelling storytelling feature on display in “Starred Up” is that in this environment, everyone is vulnerable. All the characters who manage to survive without giant razor gashes on their face or who salvage enough mental fortitude after an extended stint in solitary confinement have a savviness that, if underestimated, can be weaponized to a devastating degree. That ferocity is mirrored in the story’s central players and matched by a directorial precision that puts “Starred Up” firmly among the year’s best films.
Reviews from Around the Criticwire Network:
, writing at Complex Magazine
argues that the film’s recognition of prison tale conventions ultimately becomes one of its biggest assets:
“But if Starred Up traverses well-worn territory, it never feels the least bit derivative. Each familiar prison movie trope it trots out—shower attacks, beating someone on the first day, an evil warden—is validated by the conviction of Jonathan Asser’s script…It’s all so suffocatingly immersive that every concession to cliché feels like a merciful gasp of fresh air.”
The A.V. Club‘s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out that the film’s immersive quality helps fill in the gaps without characters having to voice the arrival of a significant development:
“What the movie excels at, among other things, is putting the viewer into the prison life mindset, laying dramatic groundwork that allows the audience to intuit when an unspoken rule—like crossing the prison’s strict racial boundaries—has been broken.”
Eric’s opening journey through the prison is a prime example of non-verbally acquainting the audience, writes Brian Tallerico in his review for RogerEbert.com:
“Director David Mackenzie trusts his actor and O’Connell puts more performance up there on the screen in body language than most performers do with an entire script…we know Eric already through visual composition, physical performance, and the other tools that average films often ignore in favor of over-expository dialogue and false declarations of emotion. ‘Starred Up’ is not an average film.”
O’Connell is drawing raves (and rightly so), but Kristy Puchko at Cinema Blend points out that he is far from alone among the film’s stellar performances:
“Ben Mendelsohn brings alarming depth to his too-late-to-the-game dad, who wants to be a father to his son, but struggles with how. Fleshing out the support group are David Ajala and Anthony Welsh, who together create a terrifying and compelling dance of male aggression, pain and desire to change. This is a film spare in style, but smartly so. Mackenzie doesn’t garnish this tale of flawed fathers and wounded sons because it’s at its best served raw and wrathful.”
“Starred Up” is now available on VOD, iTunes and other on-demand platforms. It opens today in New York and expands to various cities throughout September.