By Sam Littman.
Within the first fifteen minutes of David Mackenzie’s prison drama Starred Up, it becomes clear that the titular felon, 19-year old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), belongs in prison, though in this case the offense that sent him to a Young Offender Institution and the misbehavior that caused him to be ‘starred up’ and transferred to an adult prison are not the determinants of whether or not he is judicially meant to be there. Like Michael Gordon Peterson in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008), Eric revels in the endless barbaric and nihilistic pleasures to be gleaned from an environment in which ceaseless violence is rendered a sport. Upon entering his cell, Eric melts the whiskers off a toothbrush, crushes his shaving razor and melds a blade to the tip of the plastic with effortless fluidity that suggests he has been practicing for this his whole life, as if being ‘starred up’ was not a punishment but a prize.
The presence of Eric’s estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), of whom Eric has but one memory from childhood, confirms a hereditary predisposition to savagery and the pos itioning of prison as the young man’s ideal home. Neville’s jaded affect belies a similarly innate penchant for violent outbursts, long dormant after a decade of relative solace, and Eric’s arrival serves as tinder for a reluctant, perversely paternal return to the mode of conduct that landed him there after finally achieving a sort of stability carrying on a secret sexual relationship with his gentle cellmate and his enviable alignment with the prison’s most formidable inmate. Eric wants nothing to do with his father and Neville is in no rush to make amends, but in such a compact dwelling a butting of heads is inevitable and quite imminent. The drama is not compounded from a transformation once starred up, but Neville’s profound frustration reconciling a vicious side of himself he had long put to rest with a supremely undesirable intrusion.
The callousness of the characters and acute focus on pure hatred renders Neville’s transformation unconvincing and unfulfilling, but the immediacy of Mackenzie’s camera augments the tension so as to more closely resemble a thriller. Keeping as close to the action as possible, Mackenzie implicates the audience in the action and incites a uniquely intimate bond between the audience and the sociopathic prisoners. Chocking a production with antiheroes from top to bottom is a risky endeavor that necessitates a deft illustration of endearing traits and it’s difficult to summon any to apply to the soulless sociopaths that populate the prison. The melodramatic ending is unearned but if considered a thriller its emotional elusiveness causes an appreciation of its intensity and unerring immersion. The consistent discomfort wrought by Mackenzie’s proximal approach to action is frequently overwhelming.
Mendelsohn possesses a remarkably intimidating screen presence, a revelation in David Michôd’s extraordinary Animal Kingdom (2010) and frighteningly combustible in Mackenzie’s examination of violent personalities. He’s impossible to stare down, volatile, a force. Mackenzie wisely hands the burden of psychological conflict on to Mendelsohn once Eric is firmly established as an emotionless brute through his confounding fatherly dilemma, precipitously struggling to repress his nurturing instincts as his son embeds himself in the community and disrupts an unofficially governed but stable unit. O’Connell is impressive in a demanding role, athletic and indefatigable, unstable yet unreadable but never particularly engrossing as the lead engineer of drama. The young man is hardly ever more than an enfant terrible but a perfect antagonist in his inscrutability and socially reserved nature, a mystery to his considerably more emotive and self-aware father. Mendelsohn is a gifted purveyor of emotion without much expression, his reaction shots loaded with more feeling than most monologues.
Mackenzie won’t soon be mistaken for a master storyteller and despite his self-assured handling of incessant brutality his manner of fashioning an absorbing emotional narrative is problematic. There is certainly much to be said for playing to one’s strengths but Mackenzie exercises his to an extent that the fertile father-son dynamic is aggravatingly ignored, the cultivation of a chaotic atmosphere prioritized in such a way that a sustained connection with the characters is untenable. The lack of feeling and discernible goals conveyed by Eric prohibits a seemingly appropriate understanding of the specificity of Neville’s transformation, the why and the weight regarding his decisions until the penultimate sequence, an ambitious mode of characterization predicated on abstraction and inference that insufficiently elucidates the characters’ emotions throughout and accordingly delivers a vicious but eminently manipulative climax. Mackenzie’s compositions are riveting and successfully reel in the viewer but he or she may be borderline alienated by the time the director cocks back his fist to deliver the aforementioned knockout punch.
The claustrophobia of the institution in which the entire film is set and the immediacy with which Mackenzie captures chaos and rage is, however, paramount to the impact of the film, a tense thriller masquerading as a drama to great effect. Wondering just exactly what the filmmaker is building to overcomes the sparseness of emotion through a captivating alternation of solitary contemplation and unsettling fierceness emblematic of a distinct authorial presence addicted to the buzz that only palpable fury can generate.
Sam Littman is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.