As follow-up to his touching yet grungy romance Tonight, You're Mine, English director David Mackenzie has tackled a script based on the experiences of voluntary prison therapist Jonathan Asser. It's a radical leap in subject and tone, but one boldly and brilliantly made. Starred Up is raw, relentless and riveting.
Skins star Jack O'Connell fronts this prison-set drama as Eric Love, a juvenile who is "starred up." For those uninitiated in the prison slang of the United Kingdom, that means Eric is a young offender so violent that he has been prematurely moved from juvenile facilities to a full-fledged adult prison. In his new home, his most immediate threat would seem to be bigger, more seasoned cons. He soon earns the hatred of the guards, as well as a determined inmate enemy. His only salvation could be found in a support group run by an idealistic volunteer (Rupert Friend), or perhaps the sometimes-sage advice of his father (Ben Mendelsohn), with whom Eric shares the same cellblock.
While some prison films aim to glorify their antiheroes with a sexy bravado, Mackenzie's cons radiate with a reckless and unnerving rage. The entire cast quivers near a perpetual boiling point, making for tension so thick you could choke on it. And in the midst of it is a young man--a boy really--who desperately needs some patience and kindness before his rage and resentments swallow him whole. This is the kind of role most actors would kill for. Jack O'Connell kills in it.
From the first frame, vanity is discarded as we watch Eric stripped nude and forced to bend and cough as he's introduced with silent submission into his new prison home. At first glance, he seems too small and frankly cute to be able to stand against the other inmates who instantly size him up. But once alone in his cell, Eric expertly transforms a toothbrush and disposable razor into a dangerous weapon. He promptly hides it, nesting in the audience a seed of tension that will grow as we wait for this blade's time to shine. From this moment, we know Eric Love is not to be toyed with, but this is just the beginning of painting the portrait of a very violent young man.
Through group therapy, Eric's rough edges begin to smooth. But it's a jagged journey, one that O'Connell navigates with mesmerizing dexterity. Disturbing acts of violence early on risk distancing the audience from their anti-hero, but O'Connell wins us back with a blend of startling screen presence and a portrait of a deeply dysfunctional but complex character. The film prove be too small to contend for award season--though O'Connell deserves that level of notice. But if his turn here doesn't launch O'Connell the way Fish Tank did Michael Fassbender, it'll be criminal.
O'Connell's blistering portrayal is supported by a cast that is likewise electrifying. Rupert Friend has a tough job playing an outsider who risks his own safety and sanity in trying to help these hardened, hate-filled men. Yet he manages it with and edgy elegance. 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. At times, Starred Up can be hard to watch. But Mackenzie and his cast have made a drama so engaging that it's impossible to look away. The pacing is a perfectly slow burn style that draws you in, then won't let go. While the third act goes a little off the rails, I found this film devastating and fascinating. It's a supreme work of suspense set alight by fearless and flawless performances.