In one corner of the prison drama genre, there’s popcorn fare like Escape Plan and Lock Up, slick productions with big roundhouse Hollywood punches and, yeah, okay, Sylvester Stallone. In the other corner is a comparable hell: raw, jittery, claustrophobic filmmaking, the kind that Starred Up does incredibly well. David Mackenzie’s docudrama-influenced nail-biter has a breathless, brutal level of intensity that barely gives its characters – or the audience – a moment to relax.
The feeling of constant danger is palpable, not just because of the set’s constrained physical spaces (the film was shot in two former penal institutions), but because of the immensely intimidating performances of Starred Up’s leads. Jack O’Connell (star of Unbroken) is young Eric Love, a vicious 19-year-old who’s just been “starred up,” transitioned into adult prison society. Eric’s entry is riddled with violence after he beats the wrong guy senseless; he eventually resorts to gripping a warden’s crotch with his mouth as a bargaining chip. His actions are animalistic, shocking, survival of the fittest defined.
Eric’s incarceration puts him face-to-face with his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a prison mainstay throughout Eric’s childhood and beyond, a frightening alpha male. If most tough guys would rather be feared than respected, Neville wants both. The unexpectedly deep script, from former prison therapist Jonathan Asser, paints Neville as both protector and punisher, a guy whose lack of psycho-social skills prevent him from understanding how to treat his son. When Eric finds solace in a small group session – these sessions must have been taken from Asser’s experiences – Neville becomes a confused mess.
The violence, and near-constant threat of violence, contributes to Starred Up‘s impressive, suspenseful realism. Mackenzie’s camera rarely locks down on the action – it’s very unsettling – but Starred Up never suffers from Shaky Handheld Syndrome (the movie’s uncomfortable enough). Director of photography Michael McDonough gets optimal tension moving his camera in and out of jail cells with a style that’s unnerving but never unnecessary. We rarely know what to expect around the next corner, giving us a sympathetic connection to the prisoners. (It’s the kind of pressing doom that McDonough conveyed so well in Winter’s Bone, for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.) When the camera does dolly or crane, it’s with purpose, showing Eric or Neville zipping up stairwells with trouble brewing.
The group sessions that Eric attends are the only hint of the penal system considering a level of treatment – not rehabilitation, necessarily, that’s almost too cliché for this film. Instead, the group leader (Homeland’s Rupert Friend) is more concerned with small steps, letting his group of guys voice their issues and finding ways to tamp down on their powder-keg anger. The sequences, probably some of the more challenging for Mackenzie to shoot, deliver the film’s most hopeful – and dangerous – moments.
Despite Starred Up’s hard-hitting realism, Asser’s screenplay does have a classic narrative arc. There’s almost a slipshod repetition to the action before the story hits the final act – but when that conclusion does begin, it’s a doozy. The characters converge in a frightening, balls-out cross-cut sequence that practically extinguishes all manner of hope. Forget the jailhouse uprisings or acts of revenge you’ve seen in predictable movies. This is harsh, real, remarkably well-acted, and obviously personal.