Starred Up (2013) Directed by David Mackenzie. With Jack O’ Connell, Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend. Such is the unforgiving intensity of David Mackenzie’s prison based film, Starred Up, that you’re partly glad when it’s over. That’s not usually considered a compliment, however in this case, it does speak volumes of the achievement of capturing and sustaining a very genuine sense of threat for the entire duration of the 106 minutes you spend in its company.
The film features a remarkable central performance from Jack O’ Connell, playing a violent young man starting life as an inmate at a high security prison. The first thing we hear is the sound of an alarm before we fade in on O’ Connell being strip-searched and escorted to his cell. Alarming is the word. This isn’t a film that warmly welcomes us. It’s more one that aims to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible, pushing our buttons in a bid to challenge to question our own ethical perspective.
Written by Jonathan Asser, the film is based on his own personal experiences of working with violent offenders. As such, Asser himself is a character in the film, played by Rupert Friend, a good-willed volunteer therapist bidding to help criminals control their anger. The story never strays from the confines of the prison, lending further to the oppressive overall feel. This is a place where the weak are killed and eaten, and don’t we know it.
Aside from the astonishingly brutal levels of violence and the borderline tangible sense of threat, Starred Up is a deeply depressing film. It is a film that explores a side of human nature most of us would prefer to pretend didn’t exist. That said, if you’re prepared to get your hands dirty, Mackenzie does offer a lifeline (or sorts) with a narrative thread that offers a glimmer of hope amongst the desperation and madness.
If you see Starred Up, it’s unlikely you’ll forget its uncompromising vision of life behind bars any time soon. Although O’ Connell’s performance is something of a breakout, equal recognition must go to the brilliant Australian actor, Ben Mendelsohn, who as the parental figure of the film, conjures his own brand of no-holds-barred, heavyweight acting. In short, this isn’t a film you can fall in love with. Then again, you’re not meant to. Its documentary aesthetic makes it terrifying and gripping, while explosions of violence never feel more than a misplaced word or glance away. 4.5/5