Violence or the threat of violence hangs over nearly every scene of David Mackenzie's Starred Up, a savage drama set within the confines of a British prison. We're immediately immersed in the sheer, overwhelming chaos of the place — profane threats being thrown about, guards beating prisoners, prisoners attacking guards, prisoners fighting with other prisoners, blood perpetually dripping onto cell floors. It's a hellish cacophony of male rage, and that fever pitch of anger and brutality is so sustained that moments of quiet conversation land the biggest dramatic punches. It may sound like a thoroughly unpleasant viewing experience – and I suppose it is, in many ways – but it's also thoroughly gripping. Once the film yanked me into its unforgiving world, I found it impossible to look away.
Our central figure is an angry young man named Eric (Jack O'Connell, 300: Rise of an Empire) who has been given a very long sentence despite the fact that he's underage. As he's being escorted to his cell, he lashes out in startling fashion and nearly turns one guard into a eunuch in the process. Prison therapist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend, Homeland) intervenes and manages to de-escalate the situation, but Eric has already made enemies of the prison staff with his actions. It isn't long before Eric finds himself in the middle of another incident, nearly killing a fellow prisoner for no good reason at all. Oliver is convinced that therapy can help Eric overcome his violent tendencies, but the guards remain skeptical. They begrudgingly agree to let Eric attend a few of Oliver's sessions, but with the warning that one more slip-up could mean terrible (and possibly illegal) consequences.
The guards aren't the only ones skeptical of Oliver's methods. Eric just so happens to be in the same prison as his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly), who has worked his way up the ranks of the unofficial prison hierarchy and pulls whatever strings he can to ensure that his son is safe. He knows that Eric is going to be in prison for a long time, and feels that practical survival tactics far outweigh any intangible psychological benefits the therapy sessions might provide. While Oliver preaches pacifism and patience, Neville advocates a less tidy brand of survival. Thus, the stage is set for a tale of a troubled kid forced to choose between the angel and the devil on his shoulder.
Ah, but Mackenzie has no interest in unspooling such a simple morality play, and before long we realize that both Oliver and Neville are more complex than they seem. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Starred Up certainly provides a startling variation on that idea. The film plays like an addiction drama in which the addict has no hope of a full recovery regardless of how valiantly he struggles to conquer his own demons. This is a bleak movie, but it's not without moments of optimism. Those moments feel earned, and indeed add to the film's realism. It's easy to back away from harsh realities, but just as easy to transform those harsh realities into melodramatic miserabilism. Starred Up never strikes a false note.
A few years from now, I suspect the film will be remembered as the movie which launched the career of Jack O'Connell, who brings a raw intensity to his performance that won't soon be forgetten. He plays rage and vulnerability with equal skill, and his eyes burn with fire, terror and confusion. Mendohlsson continues to cement his reputation as a vastly underappreciated character actor, turning an initially nasty character into one I grew to care rather deeply for by the film's conclusion. Friend does some intriguing things, too, initially playing a very familiar character type (in another life, he'd be an inspirational teacher who transforms the lives of his troubled students) and then slowly but surely subverting our expectations. The casting is strong all the way through, as Mackenzie has clearly worked to fill parts large and small with actors who feel completely authentic.
Starred Up is a tough, ragged drama filled with method-y performances, but the points it makes are devastatingly precise. From its increasingly alarming opening scene to its starkly symbolic closing shot, it grabs you and forces you to consider the way prisons often destroy rather than rehabilitate. It isn't a pleasant issue, but it's one we look away from far too often. Even the worst of humanity deserves to be treated with humanity.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Year: 2013