Directed by: David Mackenzie.
Written by: Jonathan Asser.
Starring: Jack O'Connell (Eric Love), Ben Mendelsohn (Neville Love), Rupert Friend (Oliver Baumer), Sam Spruell (Deputy Governor Hayes), Raphael Sowole (Jago), Anthony Welsh (Hassan), David Ajala (Tyrone), Jerome Bailey (Reames), Basil Abdul-Latif (Mubarak), Sian Breckin (Governor Cardew), David Avery (Ashley), Gershwyn Eustache Jnr (Des), Mark Asante (Denton), Peter Ferdinando (Dennis Spencer).
Eric Love is a 19 year old, Scottish criminal who is transferred from a juvenile facility into an adult prison two years early. This is because he is violent – which he proves early in his stay at the adult prison, attacking a fellow prisoner because of a misunderstanding, and then taking on the guards who come in to try and get him under control. The movie will follow Eric for the first few months of the years he will be in prison – during which time two older men will battle over Eric. The first is Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), a therapist who volunteers his time at the prison, who thinks his group therapy will be able to help Eric – get him under control, and perhaps allow him to turn himself around. The second is Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) – Eric’s father, who has been in prison since Eric was a child, and will be there for the rest of his life. He wants Eric to behave a certain way in prison – say the right things, so perhaps one day he can get out. He wants Eric to go to Baumer’s class – but doesn’t actually want his son to change – just to pretend like he has. The larger question at the heart of Starred Up is whether or not Eric has any desire to change. In a great essay last week on The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson lumps Eric in with other “irredeemable” protagonists – most notably Alex from A Clockwork Orange – another violent young man. The comparison is apt in any number of ways – not least because while it’s impossible to cheer for both Eric and Alex’s captors – who do horrible things – it’s just as hard to cheer for the protagonists, who are violent young men who show no signs of changing,
Starred Up is a violent, unrelenting prison movie featuring three terrific performances. Directed by David Mackenzie – making his best film in years – the film starts out violently, and never really lets up. Above all, it is a portrait of a violent young man – a product of a broken home, with an absent father, and a terrible mother, who may have been the victim of horrific abuse (he tells a story that may or may not be true) whose first reaction is always violent. When he first meets Oliver, who offers him help, Eric’s first reaction is to accuse him of being a pedophile, who is looking at Eric as a potential victim (never mind that at 19, Eric is too old for a pedophile – he’s just being doing it to piss off Oliver). He goes to Oliver’s group therapy anyway – and seems like he may be making at least some progress – at least he seems to be capable of controlling his anger, which didn’t seem possible before. Yet, there is still that hair trigger temper – and his father seems to be one that can always set it off.
Ben Mendelsohn has become one of the most interesting actors around – with fine work in films like Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines. Here, he plays a man who wants to look out for his son, but has no real idea what to do. He makes it clear to the fellow prisoners that Eric isn’t to be touched – but does a worse job at trying to mentor his son. For every step in the right direction he makes under Oliver, he takes one back when he listens to his father. By the end of the movie, both mentors are gone, and Eric is left to his own devices. The future doesn’t look good.
Starred Up does more than just show these three men however – it does show the whole of prison life, including racism, homosexuality, and abuse by the guards. The guards just want an orderly prison – and don’t care how they get it. The only person who cares about rehabilitation is Oliver – and he is pretty much marginalized by the rest of the staff.
This is a star making performance for O’Connell – who got great reviews for this film when it hit the fall festival circuit last year, and is getting great reviews this fall festival season for ’71 – and is about to have a very high profile role in Angelina Jolie’s WWII drama Unbroken this Christmas. It is a brilliant performance – showing Eric as a violent criminal, but also a confused, angry kid. It’s his age that makes Oliver take interest – he thinks he can still be reached before it’s too late. But he may well be too far gone. I doubt Eric Love would ever see the outside of prison again.