Written by Jonathan Asser
Directed by David Mackenzie
Most prison stories are stories about men. (That’s what made Orange is the New Black such a breath of fresh air; it was an exception to the rule.) But there are stories about men, and then there are stories about masculinity. The latter is much harder to pull off, because masculinity means different things to different men in different situations. That’s why David Mackenzie’s new film Starred Up is so masterfully tense, and sure to be high on this critic’s year-end top ten list.
The title refers to the practice, in the British prison system, of moving youth offenders into adult jails. Such treatment is usually reserved for the worst of the worst, and Eric Love (Jack O’Connell of the UK version of the teen soap Skins) is clearly one of those: his first action upon entering his cell is to manufacture a homemade shiv, and his first interaction with another prisoner is to beat him near to death. Part of Eric’s problem is that he is well-known in the particular prison already: a high-ranking figure in its internal gang system is his own father, Neville (veteran character actor Ben Mendelsohn).
The screenplay by Jonathan Asser is based upon his own experiences as a voluntary therapist for the UK prison system; Rupert Friend (Homeland) plays an Asser surrogate. The dialogue is rapid-fire and profane, but it also shows a tremendous skill for simplicty. A single line spoken between two supporting characters, “Just like the old days,” says more about the strange little world inside this prison than most movies can get done in their first half hour.
And as for that strange little world, its incredible depth comes from the many ways in which these men challenge each other, on grounds both real and imagined. Some of it may be ridiculous, i.e., talk of orally servicing women that amounts to little more than seventh-grade locker-room braggadoccio. But the film so wholly immerses the viewer in its world that even a ridiculously overblown display of testosterone can be seen as a social currency that one inmate is trading with another under life-threatening conditions. The conflicts in this film break out because, in a situation as dangerous as the inside of a prison, no sign of weakness can be tolerated and no weakness can be shown. Staredowns and posedowns which would be goofy on the outside make perfect sense inside, because any challenge ignored could endanger your life.
Beyond that, Eric’s rage is built upon decades of real pain caused by Neville. This is where the film becomes truly exceptional: in their merciless jousting with each other, Mendelsohn and especially O’Connell deliver performances that would be the centerpiece of some actors’ careers. Backstory between the characters, which would make this film too awkward if delivered orally, instead plays out in the actors’ eyes, on their faces, or via body language. Sometimes their disputes are born of nothing – of each man being a convict and thus refusing to cede anything to the other – but sometimes they are true and agonizing. From the very first scene they have together, O’Connell plays it as if haunted by Neville, as though the old man is a ghost who will occasionally come out from under his meager prison bed.
It would be very easy for Friend, or his storyline, to ruin this movie. Films in which the lead character goes through therapy are burdened with particular demands of realism, where the therapy must “feel real” by the standards of the viewer, despite the fact that “real” therapy can rarely accomplish anything in the short amount of time over which most movies take place. Mackenzie confronts this problem head-on, by staging the therapy sequences as the most intense ones in the entire movie. Every time Eric meets with his group, it seems that the scene could end with a group hug, a full-blown prison riot, or anything in between.
Starred Up is a mean movie. Its tensions are rooted in things that most people would want banished from polite society: racism, homophobia, corrupt police. Of course, the entire point is that prison is not a polite society. But that does not mean that these men are to be written off, or that their pain does not matter. Out of all of this cruelty and brutality, the fact that Mackenzie is able to manufacture a note of hope for them is incredible. This story will go down as some of the bravest filmmaking of the year.