When a young man is transferred to an adult prison, he struggles to adapt – but with his father also serving a sentence there, will their fractious relationship threaten them both?
Despite being only a teenager, Eric (Jack O’Connell) is sent to a prison populated with hardened criminals after he becomes too violent to be able to stay at the youthful offenders facility where he was previously. In their vernacular, he’s been “starred up” – recognized as an up-and-coming criminal that he’s deserving to stay with the more serious career criminals. The only problem is that the prison authorities and correctional officers have underestimated just how incredibly violent Eric can become; a young man full of pent-up rage, he is a constantly ticking time bomb awaiting to explode at a moment’s notice.
Once Eric has been set up in his cellblock, the inevitable occurs – he runs into his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) in the prison yard. It is hardly a heartwarming family reunion. Neville is perhaps one of the few people in life who can even come close to intimidating Eric. Never having had a particularly good relationship with his father, Eric mostly tries to avoid him, but Neville goes out of his way to seek him out when he learns of his son’s arrival. Is Neville trying to threaten Eric to prove to him once and for all that he’s the biggest badass in the family or is he instead trying to scare him enough to force him to behave and do his time with minimal problems?
Neville pulls a few strings and arranges to have Eric entered into a group therapy for inmates with anger management issues – much to the consternation of the prison authorities. When it appears that the therapy is doing Eric no good, the warden has him removed from the sessions and the therapist is fired. More enraged than ever before, Eric now sets out on a violent path, making enemies of his fellow inmates and prison authorities alike. Some of the more influential inmates collaborate with the prison guards to have Eric murdered. But by the time Neville learns of the plan, will he be able to save his son in time?
With a compellingly realistic performance by Jack O’Connell, “Starred Up” is one of the more intense prison dramas. O’Connell portrays Eric possessing an innate animalistic brutality that verges on erupting in nearly every scene, regardless of who the other character may be. Director David Mackenzie excellently sets up Eric’s introduction to the facility relies on visual depictions with a minimal amount of dialog for an extended period of time at the beginning of the movie, creating a palpable sense of tension that never quite lets up until the film’s conclusion.
Jonathan Asser, who wrote the screenplay, offers an intriguingly original story, based on his years working in a prison. With this in mind – as well as the fact that the story takes place in The U.K. – there are some things that didn’t seem to make sense to an American viewer in terms of how the prisoners were handled; this could be due to the cultural differences, so it may be petty to make a big deal of such matters. For example, it struck me as odd that a guard escorted an inmate out of his cell without handcuffs. Also, the correction officers did not seem to be particularly well-supplied in terms of weapons. Again, this may be the difference with the American penal system.
Following the screening, director David Mackenzie was interviewed. He mentioned the entire picture was shot in an actual prison, but one which was not active at the time of the shoot; the dismal, drab surroundings informed every scene, he said, so he tried to use this to his advantage when planning each shot. During the 24 day shoot, Mackenzie found that some days were more tedious than others due to so many action scenes; all of the fights needed to be choreographed in detail so as to figure out where the camera needed to be placed and also, of course, for the safety of the actors involved.