Thursday, August 28, 2014


Starred Up is a tough sentimental father-son reunion story set entirely in a prison. It’s an unusual fit, the caged brutality grabbing peculiar tenderness while leeching menace into its softer spots. In terms of other contemporary prison-set entertainment, it’s not nearly as softhearted and diverse as Orange is the New Black or as hardnosed and pained as A Prophet. It carefully occupies a tricky middle ground, balancing between a desire to hang back and observe a prison’s inner workings and a plot-driven need to push emotional buttons with currents of conflicts. It’s a surprisingly effective mix.

The film opens on a teenage inmate (Jack O’Connell) transferred from a UK juvenile facility into a bigger, more dangerous adult prison. He’s been moved – “starred up” is the term for this transfer – because of his violent temper. Sure enough, the first thing we see him do, after a strip search and walk to his new cell, is carefully turn a toothbrush into a shiv and hide it in a light fixture. It’s not long at all before he’s knocking fellow prisoners unconscious and picking fights with guards, who storm into his cell in full riot gear. He still manages to get the better of them, beating them with the legs of a table he’s flipped over, pinning one against a wall with a makeshift weapon. This encounter ends with the boy needing to be talked out of biting a guard, paused mid-chomp.

We soon learn the boy’s now in the same prison as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn). His old man is a shifty character, well connected with the prison’s underground politics. The boy’s violent unpredictability is making him a target from administrators and vicious criminal elements alike. A mixture of fatherly frustration, machismo, jealousy, and fear animates the older man’s relationship with his son. There are years of resentment and damage between them, but as they try to reconcile in such an extreme context, there’s real poignancy to their fumbling. The boy is pushed into an anger management group run by a kind psychotherapist (Rupert Friend). It might help. His father wants him to succeed. But it’s hard to tell if the man has his son’s best interests at heart. There’s no trust there, from either side.

Director David Mackenzie creates an enclosed sense of verisimilitude, free of many jokes and tropes more openly exploitative prison films fall back on. Instead, there’s an unflinching tension as the inherent ugly reality of the location becomes the backdrop for a pulpy, nakedly emotional story of a broken pair of men, bound by blood, hesitantly, tentatively, forging an understanding. Shooting in a real decommissioned prison from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser, who once worked as a prison therapist, the film takes on a close feeling of loud noises and clanging ambient echoes as the dangers of a location built on systematic struggles of violence and power become palpable.

But it’s the powerful and convincing performances that truly bring the world to life. The ensemble of rough men speaks in thick accents with sometimes-impenetrable slang vocabularies. (The press notes include a “Prison Speak” glossary.) They’re lively and convincing, uncomfortably intimidating presences surrounding our leads. O’Connell and Mendelsohn bring a forceful history to their roles. I bought them as a long distant father and son pairing, uneasy about their new positions, forced into close quarters by their legal circumstances and into competition by competing places in the prison hierarchy. O’Connell, in a compellingly charismatic wounded smolder, brings a livewire violent possibility to his scenes, which makes his humbled silences and quiet revelations all the more surprising. Mendelsohn delivers another of his dangerously squirrely weirdoes, but there’s a pained compassion here as well.

Because the characters are as convincing as their world, it’s easier to go along with its moments of same-old-same-old prison process and father-son tension. I believed in the reality, this place, and these people, which helps sell the truth of their emotions as the realism gives way to elements both pulpy and sentimental as the story resolves. I’m not generally one to go for prison movies, though A Prophet seemed like something of a masterpiece at the time, and is due a revisit by me. But Starred Up has a good hook and uses it to tell a solid relationship drama in an unusual setting, letting some fresh emotions into what could’ve been only a suffocating cell of cliché.

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