What a glorious, freezing, snowy Swedish Monday at the Göteborg International Film Festival it was, because, for a non-Sundance attendee like me, it yielded the first truly great film of 2014. “Starred Up” (which, OK fine, actually premiered at Telluride last year) is an instant classic of the prison movie genre, that makes a bona fide breakthrough star of its lead Jack O’Connell (best known for British TV series “Skins”), while propelling director David Mackenzie’s previously solid career (which included highlights “Hallam Foe” and “Young Adam”) straight to Boss level in one fell swoop. Oh, and it also confirms, in case anyone were in danger of forgetting, that however often you cast Ben Mendelsohn as a violent, unpredictable scumbag, he’ll find a way to amaze/terrify you anew every time. If you’re superlative-averse you might want to stop reading now, because they aren’t going to dry up anytime soon.
Based on a script by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, the film opens with Eric (O’Connell) being admitted to prison and undergoing the dehumanizing protocols of stripping off, being repeatedly examined and having all his possessions vetted. Mackenzie shoots with handheld immediacy, and an eye for the authenticity of the squalid, joyless surroundings throughout (it was mainly filmed in a disused Belfast prison, and Asser based the script on his own experiences as a pioneering prison counselor). And that authenticity extends to the dialogue too, initially almost disorienting in its loyalty to a near-impenetrable inmate argot, and we soon realize that the words themselves are not the most important thing: this is a story told through action—body language, eye contact and bristling physicality. And so, evoking Bresson‘s peerless “A Man Escaped,” we get an immediate impression of how Eric earned the designation “single cell; high risk,” when, as soon as the door closes, he goes through his belongings, ingeniously using a toothbrush, a lighter and a contraband razor to create a makeshift knife, fashioning a hiding place in the light fitting. Not only does this introduce the “gun in the first act that will go off in the third,” it tells us, with great economy, a lot about this taciturn character. Soon we discover that his father Neville (Mendelsohn) is incarcerated here too, and is now something of a big noise on the block, right down to being a close friend of the top dog inmate and having a friendly guard at his beck and call. But Neville’s warnings to Eric to keep a low profile come to nought early on, when a violent incident brings his volatile, uncontrollable son (their relationship is estranged and antagonistic, but he is the definition of the apple not falling too far from the tree) to the attention of Oliver (Rupert Friend), an external civilian liaison who runs a therapy group.
None of this, you may have noticed, is blindingly new territory for a prison drama, but so what if there are only seven stories, if one of them can be taken, and, struck by the lightning bolt of exactly the right cast and exactly the right director on exactly the right day, culminate in a film that rivets like this one? In fact, rather than feeling generic, the classic resonances of this story of fathers and sons, generational sins and institutional cruelty here give grand scope to a very contained narrative, making the movie feel like it’s about a lot more than simply what goes on over its 106 minutes. And if thematic depth is not your bag, then there are other impressive elements: for one thing it’s regularly punctuated by outbursts of bloody, yet horribly banal violence, shot and edited for maximum visceral impact.
Because that is the overriding theme—the legacy of violence (mistaken for strength) as an almost chemical thing; rage as a hormone that these incarcerated men, butting heads and locking eyes and never, ever able to back down, produce in excess, and whose rhythms they can never master. But while some of the scenes of violence are prime “flinch cinema,” and while of course we all know that drama is conflict, it is one of the film’s subtler inversions that its centerpiece climax is actually a moment when incipient violence is suppressed and things, for once, do not kick off. The dramatic stakes of the story, and the investment in character to that point are such that, amid the broken noses and shower room ambushes that happen elsewhere, it’s a moment when everyone actually calms the fuck down that truly had us on the edge of our seat.
Mendelsohn is amazing, as we might have expected in a role that defies the tag “typecasting” just because he’s so good in it. Even scenes and speeches that, especially towards the end when the narrative stretches a bit, could feel trite, are largely rescued by his ability to convey that a man as fundamentally fucked-up as Neville probably would only be able to honestly express himself in mumbled cliché. Friend, who will be especially familiar to the small subset of “Homeland” viewers who are also “Young Victoria” fans, is also excellent in a difficult role that could in the wrong hands have come across as saintly and sanctimonious rather than impassioned and vocational. The supporting cast all do excellent work too, but this is Eric’s story, and so it’s O’Connell’s film. His performance is a revelation (easy to see why he caught Angelina Jolie’s eye for her next directorial effort “Unbroken”), a brilliant evocation of an incoherently, sneeringly angry young man whose natural inclinations, coupled with his broken-beyond-repair background have conspired to land him here, with no possibility or hope of early release. But although his pitiless flash-fire temper, cocky, aggressive facade and ocean-wide mean streak should make sympathy almost impossible, and although O’Connell is utterly uncompromising in his portrayal of the character’s brutality, the movie’s magic trick is in just how deeply we come to care and to root for a character that in real life we’d cross the street, or maybe the county, to avoid.
In fact, there are many reasons why this film is as fine an exemplar of its genre as we’ve seen, but just one main factor that elevates it above its brethren; “Starred Up,” like its characters, never loses face, never compromises its bloodily-earned hard-man cred, yet its real agenda is one of compassion. This coalface humanism, buried bone-deep beneath blood that splatters, sinews that strain and veins that bulge with misplaced rage, is the surprisingly uncynical moral of the story—if we can be made to believe that Eric, of all people, might be worthy of redemption, then surely there isn’t a sinner on the planet who doesn’t also deserve a chance, however slim, at being saved. [A-]