Anyone that watches movies for a living must constantly keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in cinema, but it’s easy for one to slip through the cracks, which is why it’s so exhilarating when a small indie like “Starred Up” comes out of nowhere and knocks you flat on your ass. Penned by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, who spent time working as a therapist within the British prison system, the film is scary in just how realistic it feels at times. From the cell block politics, to the crooked authorities supposedly in charge of keeping the peace, “Starred Up” doesn’t pull any punches in its tough and gritty depiction of prison life.
The movie’s title refers to the act of transferring a young offender from a juvenile detention center to an adult penitentiary prematurely, and in the case of 19-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), he’s been relocated two years early due to the frequency and severity of his violent outbursts. When his volatile temper quickly earns him enemies among both the guards and fellow inmates, Eric is approached by a volunteer psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) about attending his anger management class, which he believes will provide hope to the young man that he can someday function normally in society. But while his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who also happens to be doing time in the same prison, encourages him to accept the free help, his constant meddling causes Eric to wonder whether he’s actually there to protect him or contribute to the abuse.
“Starred Up” is a rather unconventional father/son drama that captures a part of prison life that’s rarely been dealt with on screen before. The violence is never as ferocious as in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (it makes its point without being gratuitous), but director David Mackenzie doesn’t sugarcoat anything either, providing an unfiltered look at what happens when the red mist descends on these wild men. There’s no doubt that these guys belong behind bars, and although that makes it difficult to identify with any of the characters, that’s not really the intention of “Starred Up.” Instead, the film is more interested in exposing the problems within the system while also raising the question of whether prison should be for rehabilitation or punishment.
For the most part, Mackenzie lets the material speak for itself, capturing the fear, claustrophobia and machismo of prison with such staggering authenticity that it’s like watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary. That unrelenting approach is critical to its success, but “Starred Up” is also anchored by a pair of excellent performances from its two leads. Jack O’Connell is still a relative unknown on this side of the pond, but his blood-and-guts portrayal of Eric – playing him as a feral, tightly wound ball of rage ready to explode at any second – guarantees he won’t be for long, while Ben Mendelsohn delivers a deceptively subtle turn as the scheming lifer trying to do his fatherly duty. The only place where the movie really falters is in the final minutes, which is a little too nice for the events that precede it, because even though the subject matter may be bleak, “Starred Up” is a truly captivating film about the ineffectiveness of the penal system and hands-down one of the best prison dramas in recent memory.