The formula of a prison film is so well-worn that any time one can really stand out from the pack, it really makes you sit up and pay attention. Starred Up, which debuts in limited release in America today, is a clankingly violent, brutal look at life inside a rough English prison, but when watching, it’s impossible to look away, no matter how brutal it gets. Centered on a violent young offender (Jack O’Connell) who’s been transferred to real prison from youth detention before he’s 21 (the titular act of being “starred up”), the film works mightily to explore prison culture while avoiding the genre’s clichés.
And they’re tough to avoid. Eric (O’Connell) is now in the same wing as his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian actor best known for Animal Kingdom) so there’s plenty of issues of abandonment and misdirected masculine energy to sort through. Eric also gets roped into a behavioral therapy group led by Oliver (Rupert Friend), edgy and angry in his own introverted way. Starred Up, written by Jonathan Asser and based on his experiences as a voluntary therapist in London’s Wandsworth Prison, deftly avoids any traditional plot motion. Even when progress is being made, the atmosphere crackles with the potential of it all being undone by a perceived insult or tossed-off epithet, and the speed at which things can erupt into violence.
Starred Up is easily the greatest work produced by until-now middling Scottish indie director David Mackenzie, who made his biggest impression in 2003 with Young Adam, which starred Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton and at least nailed the misanthropic, sub-Camus mood it was going for. Mackenzie is a director who has always had an eye for stark visuals but Starred Up is a great leap forward for him, and it succeeds partly on the back of O’Connell, a great young talent who gives the kind of performance you just can’t shake off as you exit the theater.