David MacKenzie’s “Starred Up” (2013) opens with a young man, entering the confines of a prison. He is strip-checked, given new clothes and shown into his cell. Immediately after entering the cell, he melts a toothbrush and sticks a razor blade on one end, and then unscrews the tube light to hide his new weapon. This wordless opening scene makes you feel that it’s going to be one hell of a gritty prison drama like “Carandiru”, “Hunger”, “A Prophet” and “Shawshank Redemption” (without the redemption part). Such instincts don’t go wrong as the movie displays the grimness of prison life with an unflinching eye. The film hits at all the usual themes of prison drama – brawling, police corruption, sexual tension – but it does it all with a naturalism.
“Starred Up” is the term given to the process by which loathsome young offenders are moved early to adult prison. 19 year old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is escorted through assorted prison hallways and arrives at a solo cell in high-risk section. The little yellow room with little furnishings and high window conveys a nauseating feeling, but Eric seems to be used to it as he has spent most of his life in some state institution. Soon after his arrival, Eric nearly kills one of the black inmates and beats up the prison guards. Prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) attempts to rehabilitate Eric, but he is met with strong resistance.
The only person who is able to control Eric is Neville (Ben Mendolsohn), Eric’s father who has been incarcerated for life. Neville is higher up in the prison gang and he displays unique methods to reduce Eric into a beseeching small boy. He asks him to join in Oliver’s class, where the prison’s tough cases go through anger management. While Oliver attempts to reform Eric, corrupted and dangerous elements like the warden (Sam Spruell) wants to ‘warehouse him’ or else finish him off by making it look like a suicide.
The heavily accented British slang tinged with prison code words is really hard to follow, but director David MacKenzie have kept language in the secondary place as the story dynamics are played out perfectly in obvious physical terms. Every prison film has its own surrogate father-son relationship, but here it is given with a twist as the relationship becomes biological. The father-son bonding also doesn’t happen in a conventional manner as both the characters feel an embarrassment to recognize the relationship. It seems only feeling the father-son share is anger. The script is written by Jonathan Asser, who has his own work experiences as a prison therapist. So, there is authenticity in the way the therapy sessions unfold as all the alpha-males go through their emotions. The fictional therapist Oliver is shown as a guy who has his own set of anger problems. He seems to be infected by the prisoner’s problems, while trying to instill some hope.
The father/son bond wavers into some scenes of melodrama (becomes a little sentimental), but for the most part it is naturalistic and soulful. The graphic violence doesn’t look exploitative. O’Connell gives a robust performance as the volatile and scary Eric. His on-screen behavior is too raw to categorize it as acting. Although O’ Connell isn’t physically intimidating like Tom Hardy in “Bronson”, he certainly looks dangerous especially in the way his character fights back without thinking about consequences. Tremendous Australian actor Mendelsohn is equally belligerent as his character tries to regain parental respect in a clumsy manner.
Prisons are designed to deter the violence in society. “Starred Up” shows how hard it is to discourage violence and abuse, and instill hope inside prisons. The powerful performances and gritty script makes up for the flaws of this predictable story.