Written by Jonathan Asser
Directed by David MacKenzie
Director David MacKenzie (Mister Foe, Perfect Sense) brings us a boldly fresh film about a young upstart condemned to a lengthy prison sentence who thinks that he can’t be contained by the system. Upon arrival, he encounters his estranged father, also incarcerated, and a bloodily tense tête-à-tête ensues. Hardly anyone knows that they’re related, only that both are clearly unable to express their extreme emotions without rising to violence. Emerging from their interactions is the legacy of crime–how pain trickles down generations and what, if any, healing can be had in an institution that has already decided for the most part that the lives that it looks after long ago lost their value.
The relatively unknown actor Jack O’Connell plays Eric, a brute on the verge of adulthood who seethes with turbulent rage. O’Connell rarely lets up his fervor in a searing performance that details the twists and turns of a boy guided only by preservative impulse. He acts as though he has on blinders when it comes to the rest of the world. Verbally and physically combative, Eric only cares that no one gets the jump on him. The dialogue is dense with rough accents and slang that give authenticity to the virulent flow of the film. Most discernible in all the prison rabble is the litany of curse words that stream out as the inmates challenge, fight, and confide in one another. Their cocky, impetuous way of communicating is a practical defense for putting up walls and surviving mean stretches of time locked away. Both father and son barely acknowledge their relationship or why either of them have landed in the other’s path. The formidable question at the heart of Starred Up is whether their mutual scorn will outweigh the deeply buried residual love that may remain. Mistrust and pangs of unspoken betrayal are acutely present but exact explanations of them are astutely withheld to make way for the overpowering and ferocious action.
Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn of The Place Beyond the Pines and Animal Kingdom) is much like his son, only seasoned by years behind bars and hard-won allegiances to the right people that have allowed him a modicum of power. Where Neville has negotiated the terms of his stay by way of compromise, his son will have none of it. He refuses to calm down and behave like anything other than a crazed, caged animal. Mendelsohn is emotionally measured the majority of the time, but when unleashed by his character’s anger, he let’s go of a torrent of abuse. MacKenzie presents a dizzying, grisly, and gritty story where death hangs over all proceedings. Mortality manifests itself with bloodshed and disorder. The conversations are difficult to follow at times but frequent interruptions by assaults firmly remind us that there are many reasons why people are changed by prison. It would be simple to regard such a place as a miserable cesspool, but challenging marred lives to turn around for the better is a job that some people take on personally and won’t let rest until someone has been saved.
Trying to stop Eric from getting himself killed by the guards or other inmates is therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend from The Young Victoria). He gently wedges himself into the dangerous situation and invites Eric to talk out issues instead of outright attacking anyone who attempts to interact with him. Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell), who oversees Eric’s prison block, has already dismissed the hard-headed young murderer as trash and doesn’t care what happens to him next. We are shuffled back and forth between chaos and sorrow as Eric’s passions are riled by the presence of his father or the perceived threat of violence from everyone around him. Oliver and Hayes vie for Eric’s life in a way that his father cannot articulate or adequately act upon even though he subtly wants the best life possible for his son. Oliver and Hayes aren’t just contentious figures adding a layer of pressure into the plot. Their actions scintillatingly suggest that both men could have ended up on the other side of the law given the wrong circumstances. That so much attention is heaped on the future of this one youth is to the benefit of the movie. By casting a profound spotlight on life festering with no promise of improvement, the story exposes how horrific a long prison sentence genuinely is and how one begrudgingly adjusts to or struggles against it.
Both Mendelsohn and O’Connell give their all to these damaged souls. So fast is their fury while flying off the handle that the viewer wonders what kind of future either one of them can have in prison or after lengthy sentences. Fear of failure is now a mute apprehension and something that belongs to those on the outside. Managing hate, disturbing memories, and other inmates now takes priority. That neither one of them are traditionally good men yet still retain a semblance of dignity and faint, fleeting glimmers of love for each other testifies to the film’s passion to convey why prison systems can’t give up on anyone, no matter what they’ve done or how hopeless they come across. Starred Up elucidates that even those deemed as the worst of us still have a little room for redemption while learning to live with each other and with the people they’ve become.
— Lane Scarberry
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.