Starred Up review

Jack O’Connell is one of those names you don’t know yet, but will very soon. The 24-year-old British actor has been in the mix for a bunch of high-profile roles over the past few years, and finally booked one in 300: Rise of an Empire — before nabbing an even bigger one in Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken. And while we’ve seen lots of pretty young faces come and go, his performance in David Mackenzie‘s excellent prison drama Starred Up suggests that this one has real staying power.

The first time we see O’Connell’s Eric Love, he’s being processed into a new prison. It’s immediately clear this isn’t his first time at the rodeo. He seems unfazed by the invasive strip search and unimpressed by the grim guards, and as soon as he gets a second alone he fashions a shiv out of a plastic toothbrush. It also seems likely that this won’t be his last. Within days he’s beat another inmate half to death, and attacked a guard by biting down on his genitals (through fabric, thankfully for the guard).

What makes Eric different from the other prisoners, though, is that he’s just a kid. At 19, he should be staying in the juvenile facility. But he’s been deemed too unruly to be around other kids, so he’s been “starred up” to the adult prison. Which is where, it just so happens, his deadbeat dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) resides. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, it seems.

From a distance, Starred Up looks simple. The film never leaves the prison, or jumps backward and forward in time. There are no big plot twists to track, or complicated backstories to memorize. But it feels rich because Mackenzie takes advantage of every moment and every detail. Complex relationships play out in loaded looks, personalities show themselves in minute gestures, and relevant histories are revealed in snippets of dialogue.

Screenwriter Jonathan Asser based Starred Up on his own experiences as a prison counselor, and as with Destin Cretton and Short Term 12, that insider knowledge proves invaluable. So does MacKenzie’s hyper-realistic approach. Starred Up is honest about the brutal realities of prison, and frank in its depictions of nudity, violence, and sexuality. But it never sensationalizes or glamorizes the experience — not even as it concerns Asser’s fictional counterpart, a well-meaning volunteer named Oliver (Rupert Friend) who runs group therapy sessions.

Starred Up also doesn’t bother holding your hand as it introduces this world. It doesn’t even clear up the inmates’ thick accents, practically incomprehensible to American ears. That adds to the realism and texture of the film — like Eric, we’re just tossed into the deep and expected to swim — but it also makes it tough to pick up some of the subtleties of the plot. If I have one complaint about the film, it’s that I often found myself confused by the rules and interpersonal dynamics that govern life for these characters.

Fortunately, no subtitles are required to grasp the thorny father-son relationship at the heart of the film. Neville and Eric haven’t been in such close contact since the latter was a child, and it’s fascinating to watch them try and recalibrate their relationship now that he’s all grown up. Neville regards his son with a mixture of pride, disappointment, and protectiveness; Eric alternates between wanting to hurt him and wanting to be loved by him. The negotiation feels both universal (who hasn’t struggled to establish themselves as adult to their parents?) and highly specific (but how many people have had to do that in prison?).

The questions raised by the film are no easier to reconcile. Young Eric is at a crossroads in his life, and though he quite doesn’t seem to know it, everyone else does. Neville and Oliver believe Eric can be saved, and nudge him toward rehabilitation in their own ways. But even they’re aware that Eric is damaged in ways that may be impossible to fix. On the other hand, the warden (Sam Spruell) would just as soon lock him up and throw away the key. Though the film is clearly on Oliver’s side, it is not entirely ungenerous to the warden’s. Eric is, after all, just the kind of dangerous criminal that prisons were invented to protect the rest of us from.

But while Starred Up is admirable in its ambiguity, the one crystal-clear truth that emerges from it is that its young star is the real thing. O’Connell’s performance manages to feel both big and small — big, because Eric has an outsized personality, yet small, because O’Connell also manages to show the tiny chinks in his armor. Eric may be tough to like, but O’Connell’s vibrant, volatile turn is even tougher to ignore.

/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10.0

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