For those looking to get off on testosterone fueled violence, adrenaline rushing body clashes, flesh creeping moment to moment tension with an additional thrust of palpable misery portrayed against the backdrop of dreary, gritty, hopeless, prison realism, Starred Up will please. The indie which enjoyed its U.S. Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival offers a wild, emotionally charged ride that is a tad contrived for thrills and shock; its grimy sensationalism never lets up until the film ends and then you are left with mind-numbing questions about the usefulness and purpose of prison time.
Thanks to David Mackenzie’s incisive direction and Michael McDonough’s well thought out tracking shots, the effect they’ve created is an “in your face” prison experience which is soul destroying and stress creating. Of course, the irony is the notion that those incarcerated in the UK as those in the U.S. are being “rehabilitated.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The film shows that the corrupt officials and higher status criminals whom the officials allow to “run the prison on a short chain” make the most of all the advantages they can garner in their symbiotic exploitative exchanges: rehabilitation is neither cost effective nor profitable for these power wielding individuals. It is the last thing they focus on, desire or seek.
Into this atmosphere comes Jack O’Connell as Eric Love (name irony), who superbly portrays the nineteen-year-old when we first meet him as an emotional live wire who is animalistic, bellicose and unredeemable. This incorrigible youthful offender is “starred up.” The slang term gains different meanings during the course of the film as it is connected to Eric’s ethos as a prisoner, and his “development” as an individual. Initially, it refers to his position as a new entrant in this base and vile place of soulless incarceration. Because Love has been deemed beyond all help, he has been “starred up,” sent to an adult prison for proper “rehabilitation.” The adult criminals and the sadistic prison guards will straighten him out and bend his will, ironing out his recalcitrance, it is anticipated. If not he’ll end up mutilated, his spirit broken. What else is possible?
Eric does have a bit of luck on his side. His father Neville (an excellent Ben Mendelsohn), whom he barely knows since Dad was in prison most of his life, ends up on the same cell block wing as Eric. Eric has been utterly wounded by this man whom he resents and hates; he can barely look at him let alone have a deep conversation with Neville whom he blames for his twisted upbringing. Nevertheless, Neville is well connected with the prison gang lord, Spencer (Peter Ferdinando). Spencer runs things and gives orders; he can make life easier for Eric if he bows down to his power structure, does his bidding and shows him respect. On the side of true rehabilitation is a volunteer, Oliver (Rupert Friend), who successfully runs an anger management social group that has directed convicts to control their aggression and help each other regain their humanity in this nihilistic place. Oliver convinces prison officials that Eric is an excellent candidate and desperately needs the society of the group to modify his behavior which is not only outrageous, but which has disturbed and upended the corrupt hierarchical network between guards and prisoners.
Eric Love respects no one, not his father, not the corrupt system of guards and officials, not Spencer and his lackeys. He will lash out and destroy anyone who attempts to “mess” with him or “get into his head.” He is into survival and if someone gets in his space, too bad, as he proves initially when a well meaning prisoner makes the mistake of entering his room unannounced; Eric gives the man a concussion and brain damage.
How Eric makes it from “starred up” to “starred up,” a term his father uses near the end of the film meaning brave, bold, confident and respected is the guts of the movie. The film shows Eric’s hell-raising journey through brutal confrontations, life threatening encounters and “meetings” with Spencer and his Dad to manipulate his being and will. On the side of light, Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Asser also show the benefit Eric derives from the group anger management sessions with Oliver and the dudes who are progressing to a state of self-respect, self-control and identity beyond the demeaning attributions of “criminal,” “convict.”
However, the film leaves the audience in a conundrum. Is the handle that Neville uses to reveal his “pride in his son” a last ditch attempt at a final manipulation of Eric or an attempt at reconciliation? Is this “handle” an encouragement to get Eric to continue along the path of violence and brutality which he, Neville, is on and will most likely never leave? Eric Love has a very long way to go. The film suggests Eric’s character will be in a perpetual state of precariousness, riding crests of violence and aggression without the protection of inner balance, moderation or the tools to survive any other way. In short, though his father appears to be uplifting, the ironic comment is a sad commentary on a culture and prison system that offers little hope for youthful or adult offenders apart from volunteers who enter the system at their own volition to do what little good they can. It is obvious, much more is needed and the system is so broken one wonders how anyone is able to survive it and not come out (if they get out) with worse PTSD than they most likely had before going in.