A powerful, emotional and violent look at prison and reform, David Mackenzie’s Starred Up offers a glimpse of a life beyond bars.
The Man Who Would Be King by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like a wild stallion bridling at the bit, 19-year-old Eric arrives in a men’s prison, starred up to an adult penitentiary due to his violent, antisocial behaviour in the youth reform centre. It’s not just Jack O’Connell’s muscled physique that gets you reaching for the edge of your seat, it’s the uneasy sense of foreboding that anything might happen. For Eric is a violent force of nature – fearsome and unpredictable, ready to erupt at any time and unleash his great power on anyone who stands in his way. So armed with a weapon fashioned together out of a razor blade and a melted toothbrush, the walls and bars of prison may not be enough to hold this volcanic tidal wave – where it’s strike first or be struck down – precariously contained by a fragile future of either death or a lifetime in prison. But following the fate of this wild animals he’s wrangled and husbanded by prison guards in a corral of gates, whistles and prison doors, Starred Up is the story of one man’s journey back to innocence. Through hell and high water.
Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) has been starred up – upgraded to adult prison after years in a youth penitentiary. He’s institutionalised, mouthy and aggressive – eager to establish himself as a man to be reckoned with in his prison wing. And while his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who is also serving a lengthy sentence on the same wing, tries to keep him out of trouble, Eric lashes out when he feels threatened, hospitalising his supposed attacker and landing himself before the prison board. Forced into an anger management class by volunteer social worker Oliver (Rupert Friend), Eric is slowly able to overcome his past and control his aggression. But when the prison’s top dog, in cahoots with the prison guards on a drugs racket, start to take umbrage at the young upstart messing things up on the wing, Eric is forced into a corner – somewhere between a rock and a hard place. With only his dad to look out for him.
From its opening sequence, David Mackenzie’s Starred Up appears to be a realist look at life behind bars, documenting the process of prison – from the prisoner’s point of view as he’s transported, stripped and searched to the guard’s eye view as he herds his dangerous and unruly steeds into the lock-up. Only the social worker Oliver stands outside this system of crime and punishment – the only one interested apparently in reforming the prisoners and challenging the guards inside it. But the naturalism of the opening is a clever sleight of hand, as slowly the screws are turned and the prison guards revealed to be more than happy with the status quo, taking backhanders and a cut from the prison’s criminal overlord, who with their help runs a lucrative drug business. There’s a battle between the guards and Oliver for Eric’s soul, the one offering him a future on the outside, the other a lifetime behind bars. But as the prison guards start to lose control of their wing, their staged suicide becomes a natural climax to this heightened course of events – a systemic conspiracy that denies Eric even a fighting chance.
What makes Starred Up not only David Mackenzie’s best film to date, but also utterly and grippingly spellbinding is Jack O’Connell’s muscular performance – perfectly cast as the high-risk knucklehead with just enough youthful indifference to rip everything apart. Between his exhilarating performance, threatening to explode at any moment, and David Mackenzie’s direction, which offers no escape from the seat-clenching tension, Starred Up is a dazzling example of British film currently at its best – like Yann Demange’s upcoming ’71 which also stars Jack O’Connell, a cinema of heightened experience produced by a talented ensemble of both cast and crew and with a dramatic power to rival the most expensive of Hollywood blockbusters.
There’s a long tradition of prison movies in the history of cinema, from Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile to The Lion’s Den and A Prophet, but Mackenzie manages to bring something new to the genre by focusing less on freedom and the prison experience, and more on the politics of reform. Compared to the high-concept romance of the director’s previous film, the sci-fi tinted Perfect Sense, Starred Up is much more visceral and taut. Brimming with emotion and aggression, it offers a glimpse into a darker side of human experience, but in offering an escape beyond the confines of childhood traumas and past deeds, David Mackenzie’s Starred Up offers a violent belief in the possibility of change.
Starred Up is released on 21st March 2014 in the UK