A violent young offender gets sent up to the big house.
Starred Up is a prison drama about a young offender (Jack O’Connell) who is so hyper violent and screwed up that he gets sent to an adult prison before his time. There, he has to make a choice between a life of institutionalisation or something more.
Scottish director David Mackenzie, who also made Hallam Foe and Young Adam as well as the underrated Perfect Sense, takes the helm here for a movie that could easily have just been another generic prison movie – all shouts and shivs and scary screws. But at every turn it works against convention, though never in a way that seems contrived.
Despite the setting, Starred Up is primarily a film about talking – about mediation and the possibility of finding a less violent solution to problems. Rehabilitation – its merits and demerits – is a major theme and one that the film illustrates brilliantly. And, finally, it’s about an incredibly subtle and complicated relationship between a father and son thrust together by the inevitability of incarceration.
Somehow, Mackenzie and first time screenwriter Jonathan Asser also manage to make the film incredibly entertaining. Perhaps it’s down to Asser’s real experiences with the prison community but these inmates are far from dully despicable shadows. They’re real and vital and often use humour and quips to make the best of their less than ideal situation.
The film doesn’t shy away from violence either, showing off O’Connell’s terrifying rage which completely controls his actions. But while his actions may be deplorable at times, enough time is spent examining causes and revealing the positive sides to his character to make him one of the most memorable onscreen antiheroes in recent years.
Partly that’s down to an incredible performance from O’Connell. While he may have made little impression in the recent 300: Rise of an Empire I couldn’t take my eyes off him here. It’s a visceral performance but one capable of moments of quiet. There’s anger layered behind his eyes but also a kind of cold calculation in his moments of action which is chilling. But part of the point of the film is that there’s more to him than that, and there might still be a small chance that he can escape this life before it’s too late.
I didn’t know what to expect from Starred Up and that’s really the best way to experience it, free of any expectations based on genre or the people involved. And despite some last minute grandstanding it’s easily one of my favourite films of the year so far.