One part Malcolm McDowell and his tongue-in-cheek manner of destruction, one part Tom Hardy’s Bronson and his blistering rage, Jack O’Connell embodies the lead character Eric of Starred Up with such ferocity and animalistic self-preservation that he nearly lifts the film up with him and carries it away. Luckily, Starred Up is so much more than simply a young actor’s showcase, but a taut, smartly written and tightly shot film that does prison drama in a way that makes an old genre feel entirely fresh.
19-year-old Eric has been transferred prematurely into an adult prison facility, which is where his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn) is also being held. Explosive and cocky, his temperament spells trouble within the first few hours of his stay, and it’s up to a kind-hearted volunteer psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) to try and calm him down before he lashes out so violently he can’t take it back.
This film spotlights father and son relationships and the wounds they can leave. When Eric doesn’t find the response he wants from his father, he unconsciously finds it elsewhere. It’s a painfully wrought story we’re taking with this young character. No matter his cunning, his arrogance or rage, we are hard-pressed to ever forget just how young he really is; it becomes more and more apparent as we realize that people on both sides of law enforcement have more control over him than he ever will.
The film never relents – it’s a coiling, intensive burn that forces an up close and personal reaction with every indecency, every brutality, and every moment of pain. Director David Mackenzie knows how to shoot a scene so that we feel completely immersed in the moment. He rarely pulls away for a wide shot unless it’s to showcase the clutter and industrial styling of the prison; instead, he chooses to set his camera down and watch. Take an opening shot of Eric working out as we see him bobbing in and out of frame while he does push-ups. He stands up, strips off his shirt, and moves down again for more. Throughout the change, the camera doesn’t move or tilt up to Eric so that we can see him in action – we’re allowed to see what Mackenzie wants us to see, and at the start that’s bits and pieces of this young man whom we aren’t allowed to get a read of. It’s all calculated from this moment, to the way the point of view shifts so Eric and his relationships can be seen in different lights, to recurring imagery to portray the changing of a character or the significance of a moment.
The writing is equally as impressive, and the script by Jonathan Asser does all it needs to do and more. He effortlessly depicts a relationship that spent most of its previous growth off screen and still makes us understand where Eric and his father stand. We don’t know exactly what Eric did to land himself in prison, but we don’t need to. We know that Eric is a damaged young man and we’re able to sympathize with him despite us witnessing the violence he’s capable of.
However, the film wouldn’t be what it is without its actors, and O’Connell and Mendelsohn in particular give weighty performances. Mendelsohn has solidified himself in recent years as one of the strongest contemporary character actors. You understand Neville’s position in the prison and how much work he must have gone through to get there; you see his sensibility and his frank outlook. Mendelsohn also allows us to see past the exterior and recognize the undercurrent of jealousy he holds for the men around his son and their influence on him.
It is O’Connell, though, whom we spend most of our time with, and he’s magnificent in a true star-making performance. With Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken hitting theaters in December, you can count on his name being one to remember. Known mostly for his role on the British melodrama Skins,he at first doesn’t seem all so far removed from his character Cooke, but once a showdown happens between him and a horde of prison guards you sense the trapped-in-a-cage animal depravity about him that distinguishes the two. It’s a subtle performance while simultaneously being an abrasive one. He’s in your face and he wants everyone to know that he can fend for himself, but at the core of the character is a boy who needed guidance and never got it – so he seeks it out, violently. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to watch this character struggle in the confines of where life has put him.
As summer ends, it’s easy to write off the end of the month films as filler. They’re the movies studios dump because there’s no other place in the year to put them. However, if you look for them, the standout films are there, and Starred Up could very likely end up being one of the best films of the year.
Starred Up is out in limited release now.