“Starred up means you’re leader.”
Welcome to the spotlight, Jack O’Connell. As Eric Love, O’Connell delivers a supreme performance in one of the best overall films released this year. Starred Up is an emotional rollercoaster full of biting social commentary and incredible lived-in detail. I’ve never been to a U.K. prison, nor do I ever plan on spending a night there in my life. You don’t have to. This movie gives you the experience without setting a single foot in a cell’s confines. Most movies are just things that you watch. Starred Up is one that you experience and its power will puncture your skin as easily as one of its unruly prisoners’ shanks.
Eric is a 19 year-old who is starred up, referring to a young criminal offender who is prematurely sent to an adult prison. He’s like a rabid dog, hosting a fire inside him that can be lit by almost anything. Being small in stature doesn’t stop him from starting fights and egging guards and fellow prisoners on. And the thing is, this anarchist kid thinks he can win every battle, and based on what we’re shown he almost can. Eric is reduced to a thing as he’s stripped naked and labeled as, “Single cell. High risk.”
Like the ’09 French film A Prophet (watch that as soon as possible. It’s one of the best films in the past 10 years), the movie is about power and class struggles within the prison itself. It’s a self-sustained machine. The outside world doesn’t care for the people inside these walls and barbed wire lined fences. Dwelling in the prison is longtime offender Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), Eric’s estranged father. He’s been there long enough to have clout and influence, reporting only to Dennis (Peter Ferdinando), the quiet man running the penitentiary’s everyday hubbub.
Neville missed out on his son’s life. He wasn’t there to help when Eric’s mother died, or to stop the “paedo” who sexually abused him as a youngster. Neville lingers around and peers over Eric’s shoulder as he attends therapy with Oliver (Rupert Friend) and a host of other inmates. It’s part of the deal Oliver has with Deputy Governor Haynes (Sam Spruell). The kid is allowed to attend and try to rehabilitate, but one mishap and he’s gone. We know the arrangement isn’t going to last, yet the film is so taught and suspenseful that we never know when the columns supporting the story are going to collapse under the enormous weight.
The script is penned by Jonathan Asser and based on the writer’s own experiences as a volunteer prison therapist. I loved that Oliver, a character dealing with his own demons, is so obviously personal to Asser, but the writer never makes him the focal point of the story. He’s merely an instrument for further exploration of the lead characters. I also have to commend director David Mackenzie on the level of authenticity he brings. This is the definition of trusting your audience. We don’t learn Eric’s named until the 23 minute mark, and without subtitles I don’t think I would have understood some of the thick dialect used in conversation. Mackenzie knows where he wants to go, the route he is going to take, and doesn’t sacrifice his vision along the way. It pays off.
This is a five star movie if not for the antagonists. They’re cliche, unconvincing, and have no drive at all in the story. While that’s a sizable problem, it’s the only one I could find. Mendelsohn will never be a household name even though he proves that he should be. This is technically a supporting performance, but the movie absolutely hinges on us seeing a sleazy sociopath finally set his moral compass in the right direction even if it is too late. As Neville, the acting veteran is pure dynamite, giving us a showing that explodes off the screen.
Starred Up resembles classic Greek tragedies. It’s layered, quietly and sparingly funny, but most of all deeply traumatic. We know why Eric is in there, why he acts the way he does. Just look at the above photo, as the young man so easily stands out from the surrounding background. It’s for attention. He’s a boy, longing to be a man, searching for his father’s approval and a reason to continue on living. Jack O’Connell’s career is off to an otherworldly start with this role. He’s unsettling and searingly vulnerable as Eric, showing us acting chops that run stride for stride with the best. There was a fifteen minute gap where I stopped taking notes without realizing it. That’s how engaged I was. Starred Up is one of the best and most gripping films you can see this year.
“Stay with it. Breath with it.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5