Thursday, September 25, 2014

It's a Man's World: David MacKenzie's Starred Up

Jack O'Connell in Starred Up.

The 24-year-old English actor Jack O’Connell gives a startling performance as a violent convict in the prison movie Starred Up. The title refers to the practice of transferring underage prisoners from “Young Offender Institutions” to adult prisons when they prove too unmanageably violent. O’Connell’s Eric Love, who has just been dropped into the same maximum security facility where his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is serving time, is a coiled spring, a ruthless street fighter who’s ready to lash out with his fists and feet at any perceived threat or provocation. (And not just his fists and feet: no sooner has he checked into his new digs, than he sets to work building a homemade weapon. At another point, going down fast and with no other method of inflicting punishment available to him, he fastens his teeth onto a guard’s crotch.) But he’s also a kid, and the face riding his muscular body is clear and open, occasionally breaking into an impish, childlike grin that can stop your heart. When he decides that a fellow prisoner who has entered his cell might be a danger to him, he flips out and leaves the guy splayed out, bloody and unconscious, on the floor of his cell. Then, taking the scene in and deciding that he’s overreacted, he’s like someone coming to after a blackout episode. He hauls the man he’s just attacked on his back and goes looking for help, explaining that there’s been an “accident.”

In many a prison-set exploitation movie, Eric’s eagerness to fight and his wicked ingenuity at demolishing his opponents would make him an alpha-dog hero, both to the audience and to a fair percentage of his fellow prisoners. Here, they make him a threat to the carefully balanced power structure inside the prison, which is what allows the different gangs and the guards to live alongside each other. Starred Up was written by Jonathan Asser, who has worked as a volunteer therapist in London’s Wandsworth Prison, and Rupert Friend plays the house psychotherapist who wants to pull Eric into his group sessions. Neville encourages this, even storming into his son’s first session to yank the cigarettes out of his hands when Eric ignores the rule against smoking during sessions, and barking “Listen to the gentleman!” But the father-convict and the therapist only have a superficial alliance. Neville wants Eric to put on a good face and go through the motions of convincing the authorities that he’s changed, so he can get parole. The quiet, bookish therapist, who feels connected to his patients by virtue of his own feelings of alienation from the guards and their rules, wants to force Eric to dig deep and make real, healing changes—which Neville understands is not the short cut to appearing like a docile, reprogrammed potential member of polite society.

Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendolsohn

The director, David Mackenzie, has been making movies for a dozen years now—including the mordant, erotic drama Young Adam (2003) and the romantic sci-fi fantasy Perfect Sense (2011)—and has demonstrated a lot of talent and intelligence while remaining a hard one to figure: it’s never easy to predict what he’ll do next. The wonderful Perfect Sense was an apocalypse movie that felt sweet and ticklishly light; by contrast, Starred Up is hard and down to earth, though there are stray moments when it might be set in an abstract universe governed by testosterone overload, with rare traces of pitch-black humor. (Thrown into a cell and blasted with water from a hose, Neville screams at the guards, “You fucking woman! Clean my asshole while you’re at it!”) Many of the most distinctive movies about prison life—Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman, the unjustly obscure Weeds with Nick Nolte—mostly take place outside prison, where it may be easier for filmmakers to stage scenes that suggest the way prison life leaves people permanently affected without risking instilling claustrophobia in the audience. This smart, morally clear-headed, superbly acted picture manages to report on prison life from within the walls without either softening the experience or giving viewers the heeby-jeebies. Not the wrong kind, anyway.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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