Monthly Must See: David Mackenzie's 'Starred Up' with Jack O'Connell
by Alex Billington
August 27, 2014
There are prison movies, and then there are prison movies. David Mackenzie's Starred Up is a harrowing, violent, bold new take on the "prison movie" that is worth your time to take a look at, playing in theaters now and also available on VOD. The film also introduces the astonishing Jack O'Connell (now well-known thanks to Yann Demange's '71 and 300: Rise of an Empire, plus he stars in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken), who stars as the lead character Eric alongside Ben Mendelsohn, another badass we've already seen in the likes of Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly, The Dark Knight Rises and The Place Beyond the Pines. Together they take on an entire prison in Starred Up, and it's a hell of a ride. It's our next Monthly Must See film.
Deep down at its core, Starred Up is much more than just a prison movie, and like the characters it attempts to examine and criticize the inner-workings of prisons and the human psyche. Do they help? Can they help? Can they help the most violent, the most troubled individuals? That's where we begin, as we literally follow Eric into the prison, and it never leaves his side until the very end; we follow the story of a violent prisoner trying to learn how to be a little less violent in a world he can't control. The way it stays intensely focused, brutally intimate right in the faces of these prisoners, is one of the many great elements to this outstanding film. It's relentless, but in a way that really emphasizes the much grander ideas hiding behind the curtains.
Starred Up is a film that is linked directly to the visceral, brutal reality of the environment its set in. Shying away from that violence, or covering it up, would be dishonest - and honesty is the key here. The film takes place entirely inside a prison and tells the bleak, seemingly-hopeless story of Eric, a "starred up" (meaning he's so violent he received an early transfer from a Young Offender Institution to an adult prison) kid who we don't ever learn much about. As far as we can tell, most of his life has been spent inside of prisons, and his father happens to be one of the inmates at the new place. Eric is recruited into a program created to help violent criminals, to teach them better methods of coping and living safely. Will it work? Can they save him?
Why watch this film? What makes it so good?
I first caught Starred Up at the Telluride Film Festival last year and it's just now hitting theaters in the US thanks to Tribeca Film. It deserves to be featured as this month's must see because it's an excellent film with extraordinary performances, highly energetic yet focused filmmaking, big ideas about humanity and society, and impressive cinematography. It's a film that also adds a helping of honesty to discussions in our culture about mental health, and how we can try to help everyone, whether they are really good or bad. It will make you feel deeply and react viscerally to the violence, while also make you think about your reaction, which is an exceptional achievement in film. It's across-the-board outstanding and worth the time to watch.
In addition, Starred Up is the breakout film for Jack O'Connell, and seeing him get his fresh start in this will remind you why it's so exciting to watch the early moments in the career of a talented, young actor. If we weren't calling him out already and if he didn't already have other major lead roles, this would be one of those discoveries that would leave you in complete shock. He's just that good, he's that phenomenal, and he really goes all out in Starred Up, pushing himself physically and mentally in ways that we may not see again for a long time. Seeing what he can do with a role like this, and realizing he's not actually an inmate but a very talented actor, will make your head spin with wonder. This is acting at its best and it's refreshing to see.
It's easy to spend time explaining why the camerawork, or the setting, or the father-son connection, or the brutality, or why Rupert Friend's character is important. But it's best to just see it for yourself, prepare for a brutal and bloody experience, and find out how the film makes you feel, what it makes you think about. Was it so violent you couldn't look past what these inmates were doing to each other? And why? Is it all for status within the prison? Or is violence a necessary evil? Is the honesty of it that much more powerful in the end? I think about Starred Up often, and you will too after seeing it from start to finish. It will stay on your mind.
The film is not about answering questions so much as asking them, posing them, challenging the audience to wonder whether there is any hope, wonder whether these prisons are actually doing anything good, or are they just making things worse. Instead of presenting these questions with boring conversations, the film moves quickly from moment to moment, fight to fight, showing us just how hard it is to stay sane and keep the prison system in order (or perhaps disorder) all the while reminding us that these are real people. The conversations, when they happen, are just as important - they are moments of reflection, where we finally get to see whether or not progress is being made. And we get to learn more about the mind of these people.
What are other critics saying about it?
Jessica Kiang for The Playlist writes in her review: "The dramatic stakes of the story, and the investment in character to that point are such that, amid the broken noses and shower room ambushes that happen elsewhere, it’s a moment when everyone actually calms the fuck down that truly had us on the edge of our seat... Starred Up, like its characters, never loses face, never compromises its bloodily-earned hard-man cred, yet its real agenda is one of compassion. This coalface humanism, buried bone-deep beneath blood that splatters, sinews that strain and veins that bulge with misplaced rage, is the surprisingly uncynical moral of the story—if we can be made to believe that Eric, of all people, might be worthy of redemption, then surely there isn’t a sinner on the planet who doesn’t also deserve a chance, however slim, at being saved."
Quoted in the trailer, film critic A.O. Scott wrote in his Telluride dispatch on the film: "David Mackenzie's Starred Up is a British prison drama anchored by superb performances from Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn as a son and father confined in the same penitentiary. Tough, violent and profane, the movie is also sensitive to the nuances of emotion underneath the macho belligerence, and honest about what its characters must do to survive."
Peter Debruge for Variety in his review: "Mackenzie isn't attempting to craft a larger-than-life antihero here, but delving into the sociology of this hellish subculture, where prisoners and staff alike coexist in this dehumanizing environment. The pic owes its believability to Asser, who served as a therapist similar to Oliver’s character, drawing from his experience to shape the world. Asser brings more than just realism, however, crafting the central father-son relationship on the foundation of classical Greek tragedy."
User "freemantle_uk" on the IMDB boards reminds us of another vital component of the film that makes it work so well: "A key part of Starred Up is the relationship between Eric and Nev, both excellently played by O'Connell and Mendelsohn as they learn to actually become father and son. Nev has only one setting when dealing with Eric, aggression and shouting, believing he needs to be tough with Eric to get the message across. Yet, Nev states that Eric has a chance of getting released from prison and should play the system, just so he can get out. In prison, Eric finds other mentors in the form of Oliver and two other prisoners, Tyrone (David Ajala) and Hassan (Anthony Welsh) who wishes to usurp Nev's role."
What should viewers look for to discuss about it?
The relationship between the two - father and son, and how it builds throughout the film. From the first time you see Ben Mendelsohn, he's already acting up, even though they haven't event met (in the film) yet you can tell he knows he's there and he knows what's going on. It continues to build as it goes on in the film, and ends with such an important moment - and that's where it all leads. It's also interesting to look at the violence as a way to tell such a potent and powerful story. Is it necessary? Of course it is, but does showing too much brutality numb the viewer, causing them to think more about pain than why the pain is needed?
What I really admire about the film is how much it forces viewers to wonder without providing any direct answers aside from showing us what the reality is actually like. Honesty is key. While this might frustrate some viewers (since so many people want answers, not more questions) it's crafted in a way where the story eventually leads to a satisfying conclusion within the context of this film. The film itself is a complete story, but at the same time it introduces so many ideas, so many themes and thoughts, from the father-son bond, to mental health, to society, to the prison system, to the emotions of humanity itself. Watch the film in full, and only once it's over should you start discussing it. How did it make you feel? Then always ask next: why?
Monthly Must See: We follow up with this discussion next month and highlight another great underseen film to watch. Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoy Starred Up. If you do, pls tell others about it.
From Last Time: We hope you did your homework, movie fans! Following up the Monthly Must See debut with Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox. What was your favorite part of the film? Were you happy with the way it ends? Are you okay with the way Irrfan Khan's character leaves things? Did it make you want to visit India?