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Starred Up. 2014. Dir. David Mackenzie.
Starring Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Raphael Sowole, Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Rupert Friend, and Sam Spruell. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Not Rated. 106 minutes.
Starred Up (the slang prison term for a criminal who is transferred early from an institution for young offenders to an adult correctional facility) is the story of Eric Love (O’Connell) – a young offender starred up to the big house. An angry young man, Eric ends up in a rough prison where he quickly butts heads with the prison officials from guards to the Deputy Governor of the entire facility. To make matters even worse, Eric has been housed in the exact prison where his deadbeat father Neville Love (Mendelsohn) is currently serving, what we assume to be, a life sentence. A prison counsellor (Friend) who runs a group helping offenders with their anger issues tries to extend a helping hand to Eric. At first the young man is highly resistant. However, after some time passes, Eric realizes this may be one of the only keys to ever having a normal life again. Faced with more and more to push him towards breaking, the discovery that his father has become homosexual due to his extended stay in prison, and almost everyone around him expecting him to fail, Eric must try and overcome his own issues to break free from the rage which consumes him and maybe someday eventually walk out of prison a free man.
The majority of prison films often take on the same sort of plot. Starred Up might seem similar to certain earlier works like Bad Boys or even a bit of Scum, however, it is an excellent prison drama in its own right. One of the obviously excellent things about the movie is Jack O’Connell. His performance is a knock out. I absolutely think this will be one of the most overlooked performances of last year. I’ve seen plenty of praise for O’Connell in this film, but not enough awards will be heaped upon him. Though, awards do not matter, it’s always fun to see a young actor get recognized for really spectacular work. I think he’ll definitely benefit from this performance going forward.
One of my favourite actors in recent years has come to be Ben Mendelsohn. His performance as Neville Love is brilliant work. There are a lot of prison hard men portrayed in movies, and I think Neville is definitely near the top of the list in regards to which ones are truly tough guys. Part of this comes from the relationship between him and his son Eric. He and O’Connell play well off one another, but truly it’s the father-son relationship and how everything plays out between them which is the most exciting part of the movie. The tension between Eric and Neville after the son finds out his father has become gay in prison is truly wonderful drama. I thought the scene where Eric discovers this part of Neville’s prison identity was absolutely marvelous – really subtle and perfect acting from both parties.
Another significant aspect about Starred Up is also what it has to say overall about youth offenders, or offenders in general, who cannot be conformed to easy living in prison. Better yet, it demonstrates how willingly prison officials often are to simply snuff out a problem than truly deal with it and rehabilitate prisoners, or at the very least try to anyways. Eric Love is a very difficult, angry, violent young man. His story shows us how these types are usually dealt with violently, as opposed to being given therapy – like one counsellor (played by Rupert Friend) tries to give him. In the end, without spoiling anything, luckily Eric still has people watching over him, who care for him, and do not want to see the worst happen. I also think the fact Starred Up ended on a positive note helped the film not play into all the trappings of regular prison films. Often there are grim endings, or endings which come off too bittersweet. As the end here does come off positive, it still isn’t totally optimistic, as Eric is still in jail, as well as his father. Regardless, I think the finale played a lot less typically than other similar movies, and I enjoyed the last moments – very real, very touching.
This is absolutely a flawless prison film. In a sea of very generic prison movies, from drama to action, Starred Up is one of the great modern works of this sub-genre. The performances really helped to elevate an already enjoyable script. O’Connell and Mendelsohn together are really something. Not to mention the supporting cast were also on point. I really thought all the actors who played characters in the support group with Eric were pretty damn good. There were great and tense emotional scenes involving these characters. The script is the best part of this movie, though, because it really does more than work as a drama set in prison – as I said before, it attempts, and successfully in my mind, to tackle issues involving the rehabilitation of prisoners. One of the messages lingers on until the end – some of these guys just need a chance. Not all, maybe not many, can be legitimately rehabilitated, but some just need the chance. Eric Love got his. Luckily for him, being incarcerated with your father in the same prison can be productive for the mental health because he suffers from issues surrounding his father. This a great story about redemption, love, and male bonding. Stellar film. One of my top from 2014.