Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is a nineteen-year-old whose behaviour at a young offenders' institution has seen him too much to handle for the staff and other inmates, so he has, in the parlance of prison, been "starred up", which means he is transferred to an adults' jail. On arrival he is strip searched, given his uniform and sent to a single cell, not to mention warned that should he cause any trouble there will be greater trouble for him, though once alone he wastes no time in turning his toothbrush and safety razor into a weapon and hiding it in the strip light. There is a reason he has been sent to this particular place, however, and it is the man who approaches Eric in the exercise yard - his own father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn).
When it came to prison movies, it appeared you could head in one of two directions, either make it a gritty drama which wallowed in the misery of life banged up inside, or turn it into a genre movie, be that comedy, thriller, horror, or whatever. In the case of Starred Up, it was boasting a script by Jonathan Asser who had experience in the world of prison therapy therefore you would expect a strong degree of realism since the writer knew of what he spoke, and director David Mackenzie played up that angle to the hilt, with unpretentious acting complete with strong accents in no way toned down, handheld camera for that documentary look, and no music whatsoever so as not to render this a more conventional work.
It was no dewy-eyed Shawshank Redemption then, and as you might expect the reaction to something where the inspirational aspect was more than hard won, it was difficult to grasp as the lead character is stuck in a rut both of his own volition and thanks to a social climate that doesn't know what to do with him other than lock him up twenty-four hours a day. Enter prison therapist and Asser proxy Oliver (Rupert Friend), a middle class, earnest do-gooder who has made this his duty to get through to the most violent inmates and try to make them see there is an alternative path through life other than smashing other folks' heads in as a matter of course. The problem with that being that Oliver has a mountain to climb since for most of the nation, if these prisoners are out of sight they are out of mind.
There was a definite conscience to the film, but then you had to measure it up against the regular scenes of brutality which Mackenzie didn't film as though they were depressing lows of a life inside, but more action highlights to increase the tension and offer a jolt of adrenaline. It was a curious combination and teetered on the brink of thriller territory, as if all concerned were itching to throw out all that boring, responsible business and jump into a high octane ripsnorter, certainly a very capable cast came across as extremely keen to demonstrate their macho chops and Starred Up could, with a few interesting editing choices and a thumping score, have been one of those genre efforts. That said, every time there was a burst of energy, it was followed by a hefty dose of soul searching as Eric edges ever closer to redeeming himself.
Not that he entirely does, but with O'Connell's performance in a stellar year for the actor, we can see in more than an inkling that if he could reconcile his relationship with the father he never really knew (Neville was incarcerated when Eric was five years old) then it will give them both the grounding to move on and be better at coping with a social strata that has told them aggression is the only way of expressing themselves that won't have them lose face with their peers and elders. It was that note of hope that was necessary, but what wasn't necessary was the lurch into melodrama in the final act, something Mackenzie had successfully avoided for the best part of an hour and a half, where the system sees to it that Eric may not get out of the jail alive, and not because of the aggrieved prisoners either. Whatever the sins of the British prison structure, it was just too hard to believe that they would establish their own private form of capital punishment among the staff without someone piping up and making an issue out of it. Other than that, watch it for the solid acting.