STARRED UP (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
-Neville to his son Eric
Brutal, honest, hard, parental, gritty, macho, claustrophobic, unrelenting, realistic
Sincere and raw acting lead performances by Jack McConnell & Ben Mendelsohn
Authentic themes and message about upbringing and conditioning
Excellent depiction of the world and its inhabitants within the prison
Unflinchingly violent action scenes
Directed and shot like a cable drama, not shot with a theatric lens
Moments of unconvincing motives and forced character actions
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
The main character 19-year-old Eric (Jack O’ Connell) is an arrogant and ultra-violent juvenile lock up that is transferred to the same adult prison facility as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises). As his explosive temper quickly finds Eric enemies in both the prison authorities, fellow inmates and his already volatile relationship with his father, when he is pushed past his breaking point, Eric turns to a volunteer psychotherapist to help him handle the conflict of gang politics, his father, prison corruption and ultimately himself.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
Starred Up is a British prison drama directed by newcomer David Mackenzie and written by Jonathan Asser. The movie is based on a book of Asser’s own life experiences working as a voluntary therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth that controls some of the country’s most hardened criminals. The term “starred up” is an idiom onto prison life meaning an early transfer of a criminal, in this case, the main character Eric, from a young offender Institution to an adult prison. Furthermore, the movie is a hardened prison coming of age story of relationships for the main character Eric, as he and his father, who is also a prisoner in the same lock-up, smash heads with painful derision trying to form some sort of bizarre re-kindled father and son dynamic. It’s the relationship of Eric and his father Neville that is the heart and the engine to this charged up bull-dozer of an emotional movie. Eric, played by Jack O’ Connell, is a revelation. For the first 20 minutes of the movie, he is being escorted by crooked correctional officers. Eric: broken, bent, and mishandled as if hunters caught a wild boar, lays still but fortuitous, ticking like a time bomb ready to explode with physical expectancy. For the first twenty minutes there isn’t any dialog with none of the characters talking because the movie showcases its audibility through every thick celled slammed door, every swing of a metallic cold iron bar, and every boot heel thud echoing through the hopelessly endless yellow fainted walls.
The most brilliant part on the filmmaker is to introduce us not only to the character but also the situation, and ultimately, his nemesis the prison itself. If character and texture was currency in this movie than the prison would be the bank holding all the deposits. Chipped walls greet your eye line as you walk with Eric; Day-Glo light smatters through to give a breath of life in a place where it goes to die. Walls that tremble with fear smiting onto your eyes, blinding you with a shoddy effervescent palate of a mix of orange, yellow and shock. As we are introduced to the prison, walking with Eric, he quietly seethes with little to no body motion, just waiting for his chance: like a human switchblade with its knife tucked in ready to flick open at the right opportunity. He never says a word and doesn’t have to. O’Connell is brute strength in an energy can. One part wants me to see him weapon X berserker rage, the other wants me to get his act together so we can both get out immediately. That is the strength of this movie.
You the viewer feel punished and trapped as Eric. You feel as if you did something wrong to end up there as you can’t escape its authenticity - the authenticity makes the movie unshakably its most dangerous. Coupled with this are excellent performances, but it’s truly Ben Mendelshon that’s slippery good in his role. He’s a character actor that falls just short of Gary Oldman, but he’s not that far in the rearview mirror. He is not an actor that you initially gravitate to, but is one that creeps up on you when you least suspect him. I have yet to see him duplicate a character, mannerism or even a shade of a previous performance. He portrays a father who knows he fucked up and has no future, but doesn’t want the same for his son; Mendelsohn plays a bleeding heart criminal-lifer that wouldn’t think twice to stab you in yours, or at least break it with his suppressed angry homo-sexual gentility.
Even with the incredible acting portrayals, the movie beyond the hurried visceral action scenes, was indifferently paced with a casual malaise. Regardless of my understanding that essentially this movie is structured as watching someone living their day to day life in a prison as the equivalent of a baby-boomer retiree, the tension was always at an emotional manageable pedestrian pace. Scenes and acting were a bit forced to where my interest, at times, would wane; it's during the quieter moments the real heart of the movie is exposed, but too much the movie mundanely leaditself to a step above outright boredom. To offset this, the movie would go into comical extreme violence to get its point across, just in case you forget, that you are watching a prison movie. Much of the drama beyond Eric and his father Neville was unconvincing for the most part. The movie had forced its relationships to being truncated and hurried to unrecognizable stasis. Instead of letting Eric fully have well rounded relationships develop, the plot and script placed them forcibly on him, and it came across to the point that Eric welcomed it as long as it got him on to the next scene. There are fragmented moments where Eric is supposed to bond aggressively to his therapy group mate’s passive aggressive, in which repetition would get the better of the movie. Eric would mean mug on a group mate, they mean mug back – and then in one fell swoop, all is forgiven, with everyone ready to shoot a music video and be a dance crew. It’s not that the movie didn’t bother with its humanistic details; it just didn’t mold them fully outside of what was established between the main genuine connection of Eric and his father Neville.
The movie pushes Eric towards the psycho-therapist Oliver played by Rupert Friend (Homeland) where we get scenes that embrace Eric’s derangements towards everyone to a work in progress pace to which there is a hint of Eric responding to the sessions. He is joined by a handful of black inmates that test Eric, and then befriend him, with unconvincing nerve leaving me puzzled but ultimately unmoved. Maybe it's because the script eludes that no matter what has befallen onto Eric, he is and always be perfectly fine by himself, and there is a rudimentary aspect that he is doing all of us a favor by going through the motions of personal attachment to something or someone else without really having the fortitude to fully commit. There was slight change in him from beginning to the end, but it’s mostly insignificant, petty and voluntarily unrealized. Even Oliver can no longer stand there and intermittingly watch the fruits of his "boy crush" labor spoil rotten with an academic exhaust.
In this scene, you witness not only the brutality and harm that Jack O’ Connell can emit forcefully in his acting, but you get a real sense that this kid is a lifer in the prison system, and has thrown hands against the correctional officers before, currently and in the past. O’Connell gets prepared systematically, lustfully but also carefully as he wants to dish out as much punishment just as much as he can take it, knowing how to absorb it and then fully re-releasing it out of his body violently.
Having to bypass all of the obligatory homo-erotism, bland narrative movement and forced actions, Starred Up is a meaty, bare-knuckled study of a young person that is doomed to ever amount to anything besides a statistic. Ben Mendhelson is the true beauty of performance with his role of the father, and its his complexity that really shines through the prison bars that holds him behind. This movie’s authenticity and wonderful performances were amazing to walk through, but the forced tension, unconvincing motives and amateurish camerawork and lens holds the movie back like the prison guard’s plastic shield holding back Eric's face against the backdrop of his cell. This movie is rewarding but under the right circumstances. If you are looking for a prison movie with added realism and depth but lack of narrative movement this is for you, unfortunately - If you're going to lock me up I want something more intuitively compelling that's going to stick me in the ribs the next day like a makeshift weaponized toothbrush blade.
2 out of 4