Starred Up, the new British prison drama from director David Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Asser, brings to mind the crackling 2008 film Bronson (the Tom Hardy vehicle from director Nicolas Winding Refn prior to his breaking out to the mainstream film world with Drive). Both films are biographies of a sort following a young, violent man as he navigates the British prison system. Now, whereas Bronson is an impressionistic flight of fancy with wild fantasy elements, Starred Up is rooted in gritty realism. There is a bit of irony in that statement, as Bronson is based on a real life person and Starred Up is created from whole cloth. This is an entirely different animal indeed.
Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) arrives at a prison as Starred Up opens, subjected to a vigorous and detailed check-in process. He handles the steps without so much as a sneer or snide remark, and it is unclear just why he has gotten himself into this situation in the first place. Once confined to a cell and away from prying eyes, things crystallize a bit as he immediately, confidently and expertly constructs a shiv and hides it in the light fixture. This is no ingenue. We soon learn that he has been “starred up” (a slang term for being transferred to an abnormally high security penitentiary at a young age) due to violent acts committed in another prison, and it does not take long to see such acts rear their heads again. He has a short fuse and a survival instinct that weighs heavily on fight over flight, but this prison is a dangerous place to act out. Complicating matters is the presence of his father, also an inmate for an extended period of time (played by Ben Mendelsohn), who must balance protecting his son with protecting his status, and a social worker (Rupert Friend) who sees the possibility of another path for the young Love, one of rehabilitation. Walking a razor’s edge, Eric must discover who to trust before he crosses the wrong person and ends up dead.
At its core, Starred Up is a film on the edge. Prison culture as presented here is rooted in pride and status, a twisted sense of honor. In practice, this makes the prison system into a giant powder keg. The slightest glance out of line, one word taken out of context, and seconds later a screaming match erupts, a brawl, a flash of shiv and an arcing spurt of blood. The film is uncompromising and tense, the sort of experience that swells at the side of the screen, threatening to burst forth, rushing wherever it can to fill space. The camera darts in and out, making sure to catch and convey the energy of the scene and keep the action moving. It is a kinetic experience to behold.
Where Starred Up differentiates itself most from other prison dramas is the dichotomy of role models, each attempting to pull Eric in opposite directions. In one corner is his father Neville, an absentee due to his own prison term. Neville has his own status to consider, but cannot stand to see his blood endangered, even has his blood presents problems for the people with which Neville enjoys a modicum of safety and security. Mendelsohn reflects much of O’Connell into his own performance, but wiser and more measured (and less heroin-y than other Mendelsohn performances). That explosive anger is still there in the patriarch, but it has been tamped down by years of playing the system angling for survival and perhaps even some comfort, as much as could be expected in the prison system at least. Eric’s unpredictability and lack of tact threatens to upset that balance simply by association.
Pulling Eric in the opposite direction is Oliver, the social worker who is convinced Eric can be find his own sense of peace through the help of counseling and group therapy. Rupert Friend plays yet another character who toes the line, fighting to keep his group’s collective tempers in order while retaining that sense of authority that can break through their tough veneers. These scenes are among Starred Up’s very best, providing arguably more tension and just as much stakes as those moments where Eric finds himself in conflict in the cell block. With the added bonus of the threat of solitary confinement for Eric if he acts out in the sessions, these scenes pulse with outlaw fire. Both Oliver and Neville offer different variations of the carrot and the stick, but neither can offer Eric exactly what he needs. His very life may be in danger, but he will remain his own man for better or for worse.
As the film rumbles toward its conclusion, Eric slips further and further away from providence. He is honestly not much of a protagonist in the classical sense, but O’Connell’s incendiary charisma ensures rapt attention regardless of the current state of his moral quagmire. Starred Up does not have a pat ending. It is not particularly concerned with a Hollywood ending. It has its climaxes for sure, but the denouement is marked by its inaction more than anything else. Mackenzie is more that willing to lean on his cast for that emotional throughput, content to let the story come down from its boil without the compromise of an ending too neat or overly contrived. Starred Up is all the better for its narrative integrity, and is a mature and accomplished piece of storytelling. It is a tough sit at times, but certainly a worthy one.