A prison movie just isn’t a prison movie without a healthy dose of corruption, and that’s the case with David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, a gritty, music-less couple hours spent in the slammer with the dodgiest accents Britain has to offer. Newcomer who no longer feels so new Jack O’Connell is the star of this character study about a violent teen who’s graduated (or “starred up”) from juvenile detention to prison, where he finds his determination to become a career prisoner interrupted by the idealistic overtures of Rupert Friend’s volunteer therapist. What is largely a fascinating look into O’Connell’s character is sometimes spoiled by brief dips into cliched police corruption, but it’s not nearly enough to detract from great performances by O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, and a gaggle of supporting actors.
David Mackenzie’s Starred Up covers familiar ground, but goes about it with quiet impudence, taking great pains to normalize prison life and downplay any hint of exploitation. The inmates spend their time in quiet monotony, relegated mostly to the background as the camera hews close to the stars. Dropped into this functional dullness is O’Connell’s Eric Love, whose idea of prison life falls in line with its more outrageous depictions, an even worse variation of juvie where fights and pranks are exponentially more horrible. It also just so happens that his ne’er-do-well father (Mendelsohn) is on the same cell block, an interesting twist that, despite its contrivance, revives the nature vs. nurture debate to good effect. The younger Love quickly becomes the talk of the block when he oversteps the bounds of normal etiquette, embarrassing his dad and unsettling the atmosphere with his immaturity.
Writer Jonathan Asser uses Eric as a worst case scenario of institutionalization. Once volunteer therapist Oliver (Friend) approaches him, Eric makes it clear that his aggression is a carefully cultivated part of his image, something that also catches the eye of a shrewd big shot prisoner who imagines bigger things for the boy. Immature he may be, Eric entered prison with open eyes, mocking the idea of rehabilitation, and rather than imagining himself a lost cause, takes control of his life behind bars. Mackenzie opens the movie with a six minute walk to Eric’s cell. Once he’s left alone in his cell Eric closes his eyes, as if to enlarge his new quarters, before orienting himself completely, unpacking his things, fashioning a new shiv, and casing his surroundings once he’s out in the block. His age may have something to do with his blood being up, but once he calms down he’s right at home.
Needless to say, Eric Love is O’Connell’s calling card, a blistering out-of-body role that puts marbles in his mouth and a mirror up his rear end. Without it, there would undoubtedly be other up-and-comers starring in Unbroken and ’71. The dead-eyed look he gives authority figures, including his onscreen father, only cracks the surface of a mischievous, loyal young man that shines through in smaller moments with fellow inmates. The best scenes involve his group therapy sessions, where Friend and, quite honestly, even O’Connell himself, takes a backseat to the likes of David Ajala, Raphael Sowole, and Anthony Welsh as their characters struggle valiantly to better themselves. Mendelsohn as well, a late blooming newcomer himself, pulls the same trick as O’Connell, hiding his insecurity behind a puffed-up ego and a sweatshirt that makes him look three times as big as he really is.
Mackenzie’s greatest feat is in making prison ordinary. When a shiv is flashed in an argument during group therapy, it’s no reason to panic. In fact, it requires the most delicate of handling. Mackenzie packs lots of tension into such small moments, and O’Connell’s bottled up fury gives him plenty to play with, like in a hair-raising scene when a friendly inmate tries to nudge him awake. Thanks to their spontaneous energy it’s a shame that a corruption subplot that’s barely worth describing is shoehorned in to give things shape. In context, the movie works as a shapeless thing, and the machinations of a slimy warden ruin the natural flow of Eric’s emotions as he’s pulled between therapy and his urge to gain credibility. It shows Mackenzie and Asser trying to control things too much, but it’s a small complaint when the movie rids itself almost completely of sensationalism in its pursuit of compelling characterization.