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Starred Up

As a film lover and a movie blogger, these are the moments I live for. It only happens once or twice a year for me, but I absolutely love those times when a film comes from entirely out of nowhere to play in my town and bowl me over. It’s a wonderful surprise to watch, and an honor to help spread the word.

In this case, the movie is Starred Up, a prison drama out of the United Kingdom. I had never even heard of this one until it arrived at Living Room Theaters, and then I found that it was almost unanimously praised by critics. Seriously, the Tomatometer stands at 99 percent as of this writing; I didn’t even know it could go that high. Needless to say, I was curious.

Our protagonist is Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a violent criminal who just got transferred from a juvenile prison to an adult one (this is what it means to be “starred up,” by the way). The twist? This is the exact same prison where his dad (Neville, played by Ben Mendelsohn) is serving a life sentence. Awkward moments, violent confrontations, and a whole lot of swear words ensue. Oh, and some graphic male nudity, can’t forget that (much as I’d like to).

Let’s start by discussing Eric. At first glance, the guy’s a psychopath. He’s aggressive, he’s brash, he has absolutely no respect for anyone else, least of all anyone in authority… basically, he’s the exact kind of person who should be locked away and kept from society at large.

On a deeper level, it’s obvious that Eric is very badly damaged. He thrives in isolation and he refuses to trust anyone else, both of which are signs that he’s been hurt plenty of times before. Moreover, Eric has been through the protocols of prison life so many times that he often goes through the motions without even realizing that he’s doing it. This suggests how long he’s been in prison and how deeply it’s shaped him, which begs the question of whether he could possibly find a place in outside life. Assuming, of course, that he ever gets out of prison at all.

I’ll put it to you this way: The very instant Eric first arrives in his cell, we watch him build a shiv out of a disposable razor and a toothbrush, disassemble the light fixture where he hides it, and put the light back together. And he does this with such speed and apathy that you’d swear he had already done this a million times. That — in summary — is everything you need to know about this character.

Then we have Neville. Here’s a guy who thought he had everything worked out. He was going to spend his entire life in prison (as a prominent and powerful member of that community) and that’s that. But then Eric comes wandering in and Neville suddenly has a second chance at being a father. It’s plainly obvious that he genuinely wants to be there for Eric, helping his son get out of prison in one piece as quickly as possible. He just doesn’t have the ability.

Eric and Neville have both been in prison for so long that they’ve apparently forgotten how to connect in any kind of a healthy way. In fact, given that they were both sentenced to lengthy prison stays in the first place, maybe they were never very socially capable to begin with. Oh, and it’s been ten years since they last saw each other, that hasn’t helped. Yet in spite of all that, Neville is the only one with any semblance of authority Eric will listen to. And no matter how reluctant Eric may be to accept it, Neville is in a position to offer Eric a great deal of help that the new kid needs. At first.

In very short order (and in a painfully blunt manner that I don’t dare spoil here), Eric catches the attention of a prison psychologist (Oliver, played by Rupert Friend) who’s working on group therapy sessions. It takes a lot of time and effort, but these group meetings slowly lead to Eric making friends and allies of his own, without his dad’s help. Moreover, Eric very gradually starts showing improvement in managing his anger, where his dad only seems to bring it out. To wit: When Neville sees his son’s improvements, he gets upset that he has no idea what’s going on and can’t have any part of it.

Basically, Neville’s character arc involves letting go of his son and letting Eric be his own man. Eric, meanwhile, is struggling to find his own way and get out from under his dad’s shadow. That would make for some powerful stuff in any family drama, but it leads to some remarkable thematic depth by way of a prison drama. After all, Eric can only grow as a person by getting to a place where Neville can’t follow. He’s outgrowing his criminal past while simultaneously outgrowing his family history, which makes the process of change doubly hard and doubly painful.

Now let’s get to the nitpicks. We start with Oliver, who works entirely pro bono and looks like the soft outsider that he is. He’s a potentially interesting character, since Oliver had to work immeasurably hard to gain any shred of respect from the inmates. Also, the story of why he works so hard on a volunteer basis is potentially a very interesting one. Alas, most of this backstory is only hinted at and a lot of the character’s potential goes untapped. Though to be fair, part of Oliver’s job is to stay calm and collected, which makes it hard to leave an impression next to so many aggressive and unpredictable characters.

(Side note: The screenplay was written by Jonathan Asser, who worked as a voluntary therapist with some of the most dangerous prisoners in the UK. I guess that explains where this storyline came from.)

On the other side of the spectrum is Deputy Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell), the guy in charge of the prison. He looks and acts like a two-dimensional villain and no attempt is made to the contrary. Though to be fair, the dialogue in this film is spoken with such impenetrably thick accents that I may have missed any explanation regarding his motives.

I understand that Oliver and Hayes are there to examine the question of whether prisons should try to rehabilitate prisoners or just keep them locked away. I also understand how Hayes is there as a way to show that cops and criminals are only two sides of the same coin. Yet these themes feel perfunctory, their execution is rather clumsy, and they’re never anywhere near as interesting as what’s going on with Eric and Neville.

That said, any points I take away for the inaudible dialogue and a couple of weak characters must be given right back for the visuals. The whole movie — the first act, in particular — is acted and shot in such a way that I could clearly understand most of what’s happening even without the dialogue. So much of the film is focused on showing the routine of prison life, with all its protocols of what the prisoners have to do at what time and where they can’t be. It’s more than just oppressive — the commands are all given and followed in such a rote manner that it looks terribly disturbing. What’s more, the whole prison is shot in a very claustrophobic way — with a bit of cinema verite handheld camera for good measure — which of course does wonders for the atmosphere. I should also mention that the filmmakers decided not to go for any kind of “grim and gritty” look. No, the prison is always brightly lit so we can always see exactly what horrible things are going on in this hellhole.

Despite a few minor problems that I have with it, Starred Up is absolutely a good movie. It’s a fantastic prison drama powered by immersive camerawork and two incredible performances from O’Connell and Mendelsohn. The central concept of a complicated father/son drama by way of a violent criminals in a prison setting is a remarkable one, delivered so well that I strongly recommend it.

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