Directed by David Mackenzie from a debut script by former Prison therapist Jonathan Asser, Starred Up bucks the trend of most jail films, delivering a realistic and relentless portrayal of uncontrollable aggression and the reality of prison life. Honestly, my expectations were fairly low when I entered the cinema and how wrong I was; Starred Up is a gritty, bleak, hard-hitting drama where the word ‘hope’ seems to be absent from the film’s vocabulary. Touching is not a word I would use to describe any part of this outing; in fact I’d go so far to say that the parts which would normally be played for cheap, cathartic (yet joyful) tears in this film are instead downright depressing. What you’ll find here is not uplifting prison fare like the Shawshank Redemption; the prison experience is far more akin to that portrayed in Oz – however as harrowing as it can be, this is one film not to be missed.
The film follows Eric (Jack O’Connell), a prisoner who has been ‘starred up’ from a low security delinquent prison into a higher security adult prison that also happens to house his absentee father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Starred Up performs the amazing feat of making us care about every (and I do mean every) prisoner. This is truly an achievement because on face value, not one of them is likeable; no one claims their innocence, everybody (barring one or two) has very clear and apparent problems, many are violent and abusive and virtually none of them are the sorts of people you’d ever want anything to do with. This is largely due to Asser’s proficient and arguably even efficient script which, when combined with O’Connell and Mendelsohn’s stand-out performances, makes this film something truly special. We find out nothing about any of the prisoners’ crimes, only occasionally being fed the length of their sentences, and often we don’t even get that. We see these vile men being downright horrible to each other constantly, yet somehow Asser always finds a way to make us care for each and every one of them, even if just for a second.
To the film’s eternal credit it does not retread ground covered by many others of its ilk; it’s refreshing to see a hard-hitting and gritty prison film where prison rape is not exploited as a plot device, nor played up for comedic effect. It also doesn’t fall into the trap of introducing the plotline of ‘we can fix these men’ that we see slip into prison films time and time again. There is an acknowledgement that full rehabilitation is futile, there’s even the visual metaphor of prison being a rotating door, but what the film does suggest is that some of these men (and I do mean some, not all) can learn to monitor their own actions and reduce vicious outbursts of violence.
If there are two things I can criticise the film for, it’s the occasional undercooked line here or there, little reminders that this is the first script of prison counselor-turned-screenwriter Asser, that break the overall immersive power of the film. Unfortunately, despite being great in other films, I also didn’t find the performance of Sam Spruell as the prison governor particularly believable. Don’t let this turn you off though; the fact that these are my lone complaints against the film speaks volumes about the quality of all other aspects of Starred Up. Every other performance is on point, every other line is perfect, the cinematography captures the claustrophobic prison environment without fault, and Mackenzie’s direction, although restrained, is masterful.
This is probably the best prison film I’ve ever seen (barring maybe Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson) and I think that people should really go out and see it; it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another prison film that so effectively balances themes of redemption and rehabilitation without ever getting too heavy-handed or falling into the realm of tried and tested cliché. There’s a level of realism here that seems absent from most other prison films; I’d even go as far as saying Starred Up should set the benchmark for all future prison films. It’s a shame then that due to its smaller distribution strategy and the bleakness of the content, it will probably never have a substantially sizeable audience.