Just when you think you’ve seen all there is to offer from the well-worn prison genre, along comes this exhilarating and intelligent low-budget gem.
From Cool Hand Luke (1967), to Midnight Express (1978), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and about a million others, the prison movie lends itself to numerous different interpretations.
The most forgettable tend to be none-too-weighty action flicks that provide steady work for former wrestlers or MMA fighters, while the ones that stick in the memory are either allegorical (Cool Hand Luke‘s religious symbolism, for example) or have something to say about the world we live in.
One of the best prison movies in recent years was Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) which, apart from being genuinely nail-biting, was also overt in its politics. There are hints of A Prophet in David Mackenzie’s brutal and electrifying Starred Up as it closely follows the travails of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a young inmate prematurely incarcerated into an adult prison.
The film’s methodical opening reel is similar to Audiard’s masterpiece as it fixes its gaze on Eric as he is transported to jail and is processed by the guards in a deliberately intimidating fashion designed to reinforce the power structure. Unlike Tahir Rahim’s Malick from A Prophet, however, Eric is already a veteran of the penal system, having been ‘starred up’ (transferred early) from a Young Offender Institution and makes it is first act to fashion a weapon for himself.
Although clearly intelligent, Eric is also a caged animal and acts impulsively, more often than not out of a sense of fear. He must also deal with the discovery that he’s locked up alongside his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a respected long-term convict, and forms a loose connection with the well-meaning Oliver (Rupert Friend), a therapist who wants a chance to help him.
Eric stands at a crossroads within the prison. His father represents a broken past that has led him to this place; the system, led by Sam Spruell’s loathsome Deputy Governor Hayes represents the walls that surround him in the present; while a possible future is represented by Oliver, who wants to help break the cycle of violence and self-destruction in the lives of Eric and other inmates.
The brutality of the prisoners is reflected by the guards and the authority that runs the facility. Jonathan Asser’s script (based on the writer’s own experience of having worked as a therapist in a prison) deftly lays bare the hypocrisy of a prison system that purports to want to rehabilitate its inmates, but in actuality sees the likes of Eric as nothing more than worthless scum not worth bothering with. Violence begets violence, from the bottom to the very top.
O’Connell gives a fearless performance as Eric. On his own in his cell, he betrays a pent-up look of fear that reminds us just how young he is, but around others adopts a puffed up arrogance that spills over into uncontrollable fury.
Eric’s complicated relationship with his father is the heart of the film and both actors give it everything they’ve got. Eric initially cannot look Neville in the eye when they first encounter each other in the prison yard and the anger and disappointment felt by his father is palpable. Neville, whose impulse towards savagery is shared by Eric, is torn between looking out for his son and wanting to knock seven bells out of him, and it’s absorbing watching how one side slowly wins out over the other.
Needless to say the violence is shocking and visceral, but then it has to be when you consider the environment these people exist in.
Starred Up is as smart and uncompromising as it is ferocious. There’s a new daddy in town and this is it.