There’s an animalism to the inside. As soon as you step through the gates of a penitentiary you are stripped – both literally and figuratively – of everything that makes you a person. Your belongings, clothes, and then your dignity are all removed over the course of about 3 minutes. And then you’re in – that’s it, you’re stuck. There is no coaching for this, you’re just thrown in the deep end. One day you are not in prison, and the next day you are. It’s very easy to lock people away, placing them out of sight and out of mind, but these pariahs face an existence plagued by the sort of fear and brutality that we reserve only for our worst nightmares.
When we first begin following Eric (Jack O’Connell), Starred Up‘s main character, he remains wordless as he is escorted through hallways and metal detectors to the room assigned as his new home. He’s young, he’s violent, he’s damaged goods. This is the Eric we’re presented with. He’s a rubber band stretched to its limit. A bruised and battered ball of anger and terror who, at the age of 10, melted a pedophile’s face off with boiling water.
O’Connell is absolutely tremendous in the role, with an alternately terrifying and pitiful portrayal of a kid who never really had a chance. The incredible physicality of his performance brings to mind Tom Hardy’s similarly cell-bound psychopath in Bronson, but where Hardy had to find the man in the myth, Eric is all too human. He quivers behind closed doors, and is constantly trying to temper his uncontrollable rage – it doesn’t help that his estranged father’s in his cell block either. Starred Up is one hell of a calling card for O’Connell, and should be his ticket to the A-list.
Ben Mendelsohn is equally brilliant as the Dad that Eric never truly knew, a man broiling with violence and jealousy to the point of complete self division. He spends most of his time flitting between his hopes and his paranoia – a scene in which he attempts to open up to a support group, only to violently exit after 30 seconds, is heartbreakingly tragic. They’re two peas in the same pod, stuck in a world so intimidating that every conversation seems to be on the inevitable path to an argument, with blows soon to follow.
With such a pair of pile-driving performances, Starred Up was always going to make engaging viewing, but the film manages to build on this groundwork with a brilliant set of supporting performances. Most notable is a deceptively quiet turn from Rupert Friend, providing the necessary contrast to O’Connell and Mendelsohn’s chest-beating to stop the film from growing tired.
It’s not only the acting that’s top-notch here. Director David Mackenzie creates an atmosphere of constant dread, packed with random bursts of abuse that swiftly shift into feverishly chaotic violence. It’s not exactly your standard Friday night popcorn flick, but it’s the kind of experience that sticks with you – it’s been a couple of days now, and it’s still ringing around my head like I just walked out of the cinema.
It’s just a shame that Starred Up has its handicaps. The script leaves a good deal to be desired, with the film’s minimal dialogue frequently clunking as it tries to exposite Eric’s back story in a way that is at complete odds with the physical naturalism of its performances. The plot also takes a rather bizarre turn in the final third. Whilst it concludes with an incredible power that I could never begrudge, it makes its way to this ending via a confrontation with an Evil And Corrupt Warden stereotype that should be off bothering lesser films.
With Hunger, Bronson and A Prophet all ingrained in recent memory, the gritty prison drama has been in good health of late – I suppose we’re just fascinated with it. It’s a terrifying bastion of upended masculinity, an ironcast cauldron of fear and malice, disillusion where the world’s most violent and damaged people are all locked in a bunch of 6 by 6 rooms and told to behave. There is horror there, and it’s a horror that Starred Up captures brilliantly. Its claustrophobic atmosphere and snarling performances won’t be for the faint of heart, but for those made of bolder stuff, this is cinema at its least forgettable and most powerful.
Starred Up is draining, brutal and absolutely unforgettable. Hands down, this is one of 2014's must-see movies.