Starred Up is a powerful examination of inherent violence, predestination of prison for the children of criminals and the industrialised apathy of incarceration.
Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is so uncontrollably violent that he’s moved from juvenile detention to adult prison. It just so happens that he’s placed in the same prison as his father Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn). Eric must attempt to survive while confronting his past (namely his relationship with his father) and the volcanic reflexive barbarism inside him. His only hope is an anger management group with counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend) and fellow inmates Hassan (Anthony Welsh), Tyrone (David Ajala) and Des (Gershwyn Eustache Jr).
From the opening moments of Starred Up, director David Mackenzie does a phenomenal job of conveying Eric’s (O’Connell) familiarity with institutionalisation. Shedding clothes, being frisked and searched and unceremoniously squatting to reveal that he isn’t smuggling in contraband; with barely any words spoken you’re being told that this kind of admission into a penal facility has been part of his life for a long time. From the second he’s into his cell for the first time weapons are made, hiding places are found and we have kid whose ready to go to war with anyone that stands in his way.
O’Connell plays Eric with a relish for battle. There’s no flight reflex to be found in this ultimately troubled young man; just a learned survival mechanism. Once he’s able to apply some of the lessons of Oliver’s (Friend) group, he still has the impulse for violence, but every action he is forced to take is played with fierce turmoil. It’s an incredibly dynamic performance from the young O’Connell. The physical demands are met with gusto and emotional and psychological journey is conveyed with restraint.
Mendelsohn’s Neville Love is a ‘lifer’, he’s adapted to the world in which he lives and tries, with threats of a walloping, to keep Eric in check and to understand the way of ‘this’ world. Mendelsohn plays Neville as emotionally dim and his presence is both a necessary catharsis and unnecessary prodding for Eric. One of the great scenes in the film confronts the reality of physical love and companionship in the prison context. David Chrysanthou’s Ashley plays Neville’s partner and when he’s introduced to Eric there’s a strange, yet familiar moment, where a parent’s new partner confronts a child. In this context though it’s vastly more extreme. The disgust, the agony of coming to terms with the reality of life in prison, hits Eric like an avalanche.
Friend’s Oliver is the emotional core of the film. It’s eluded that he’s been a victim of a heinous crime in his youth, which resulted in him losing control of his furious impulses. His life’s pursuit now is to stand toe-to-toe with the most violent inmates and try and get them to be able to diagnose why they react in the ways that they do. Friend shows such heart and care in the face of the most terrifying inmates. Welsh’s Hassan and Ajala’s Tyrone are guys who use physical training to release the valves of pressure building inside them, while Des (Gershwyn Eustache Jr) attempts to be meditative but in one instant shakes with exasperation.
Mackenzie and screenwriter Jonathan Asser’s scenes involving the anger/violence management group are something to behold. Mackenzie sweeps in and around the room on the waves of tension and tenuous control. Asser’s script is totally authentic fostering incredible performances that feel like each inmate (O’Connell, Welsh, Ajala and Eustache Jr) is about to burst attempting to contain the explosive malice coursing through their veins.
Starred Up is unflinchingly ferocious and you won’t be able to look away.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Jonathan Asser
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Gilly Gilchrist, Frederick Schmidt, Edna Caskey, Darren Hart, Raphael Sowole, Duncan Airlie James, Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Jerome Bailey, Basil Abdul-Latif,