This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Göteborg International Film Festival
It was a glorious, freezing, snowy Monday evening at the Göteborg International Film Festival that yielded the first truly great film of 2014. “Starred Up” (which, fine, actually premiered at Telluride last year) is an instant classic of the prison movie genre, making 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. And in case anyone forgets, the film confirms that however often you cast Ben Mendelsohn as a violent, unpredictable scumbag, he’ll find a way to amaze/terrify you every time. The superlative-averse might want to stop reading now, because there will be many coming up in the next several paragraphs.
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, being examined and having all his possessions vetted. Mackenzie shoots with handheld immediacy and with 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 prison counselor). And that authenticity extends to the dialogue, which is initially comprised of a disorienting, near-impenetrable inmate argot. We soon realize that the words themselves are not terribly important: This is a story told through action —body language, eye contact and bristling physicality. 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,” but also tells us 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 shot on the cell block, right down to being a close friend of the facility’s alpha inmate and having a friendly guard at his beck and call. But Neville’s warnings to Eric to keep a low profile comes to nothing early on, when a violent incident brings his volatile 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 is blindingly new territory for a prison drama. But so what? If there are only seven stories, and one of those stories is struck by the lightning bolt of exactly the right cast and exactly the right director, and it culminates in a riveting film? The resonant themes of fathers and sons, generational sins and institutional cruelty here give grand scope to a contained narrative, making the movie feel like it’s about a lot more than simply what transpires over 106 minutes. And if plumbing thematic depths isn’t your thing, note that the film is regularly punctuated by outbursts of bloody yet horribly banal violence, shot and edited for maximum visceral impact.
And that is the overriding theme —the legacy of violence mistaken for strength as an almost chemical reaction; rage as a hormone that these incarcerated men, each butting heads and locking eyes and never, ever able to back down, produce in excess. But while some of these brutal scenes are prime “flinch cinema,” one of the film’s subtler inversions is that its centerpiece climax is a moment when incipient violence does not explode, but is suppressed. The dramatic stakes of the story and the investment in character to that point are such that it’s when everyone actually calms the fuck down that truly had us on the edge of our seat.
Mendelsohn is amazing in a role that defies the tag “typecasting,” just because he’s so good in it. Even scenes and speeches that could feel trite are largely rescued by the actor’s 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, but this is Eric’s story and thus 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 in jail with no possibility or hope of early release. But although his pitiless flash-fire temper, 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.
“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 splattering blood, straining sinews 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-]