Starred Up is a gritty, intense, and shockingly unique take on the prison drama genre. Yes, there are echoes of the likes of HBO’s OZ, but David MacKenzie’s take on the family dynamics in jail is executed in a fresh and vital fashion.
When we meet Eric (Jack O’Connell), he has just been transferred from a youth detention centre into an adult prison, and he is quickly forced to adjust to a far more lethal form of incarceration. When he inadvertently attacks a fellow prisoner and prepares to accept the repercussions, we see his almost feral nature explode off-screen. This is a wonderfully wild segment, and there’s a sense of authenticity throughout, the small details that set the film apart. There’s a macabre, “back to school” segment where he prepares for his new digs that’s simply extraordinary, tiny details and insert shots that are clearly drawn from real experiences in prison. This is a man completely attuned to surviving a life in prison, it’s just regular social interaction that he’s completely incapable of.
It is this journey through the film that is the most compelling aspect of the work, a journey that never feels inauthentic. There are no easy answers or choices here, but each moment is played with such believability that at times it’s quite unsettling.
O’Connell is surrounded by an exceptional ensemble cast. Animal Kingdom‘s Ben Mendelsohn continues to impress, a perfectly cast portrayal of O’Connell’s incarcerated father. The rival allegiances as the familial bond is allowed to grow forms the core of the film’s narrative, and it’s almost Shakespearean in its levels of violence and manipulation. David Dajala heads a group of inmates looking for another way out, their remarkable faces and intense performances adding greatly to the film’s impact.
Written by Jonathan Asser, a former psychotherapist who worked in the penal system, there’s a sense of gritty realism throughout the piece, and clearly the basis for Rupert Friend’s character. Asser captures life in the system with enormous clarity – from the savage brutality to the dynamics within group sessions, there’s not a false note to be heard. It’s Friend’s character who could easily fall into farce, some sort of touchy-feely component to lighten the mood, but the integration of the character into the whole is done deftly, the therapeutic insights well illustrated without seeming tangential to the plot.
Told at a brisk 100 minutes, the film feels unrelenting. There are a couple of minor missteps where plot elements are telegraphed too much, but for the most part the work maintains its tension throughout. Surrounding the leads are a fine ensemble of some pretty amazing faces, expressive performances captured on screen that make the work feel almost documentary like.
O’Connell’s performance is one of the finest of the year, and Mendelsohn once again demonstrates his unique brand of cold hearted intensity.