This fierce British psychodrama plunges you into the bleak and ferocious ecosystem of the high security prison.
Enter Eric Love (Jack O'Connell), an ultra-violent juvenile who has been "starred up", or transferred prematurely from a Young Offenders Institution to an adult prison. He hastily encounters his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who is serving time in the same prison. Keen to take his long lost son under his wing, Neville seeks to reconnect and assist his son in surviving the merciless territory they occupy together. However Eric considers this sudden display of paternalism to be too little, too late. Besides, Eric's propensity for psychotic brutality ensures that he remains feared enough, at least at his level in the social hierarchy to go it alone.
Neville isn't the only man trying to save Eric. As the father and the son lock heads, Eric finds himself attending group therapy sessions run voluntarily by Oliver Baumer, or "Ol" (Rupert Friend). He does so to keep place on the ward, brokering an arrangement with the prison governor (Sian Breckin) after managing to assault a cohort of prison guards on his first day. With the support of Ol and the other inmates in the group, he slowly begins to chip away at the walls of the psychological prison he has been incarcerated in. But simultaneously, the capacity Eric has to network with convicts from across the social hierarchy without Neville's influence only serves to fuel the burgeoning resentment the father & son have for one another. It becomes a question of when, not if, the tensions will boil over into outright conflict.
Written for the screen by Jonathan Asser, a first-time screenwriter who had previously worked as a therapist with inmates at HM Prison Wandsworth in South West London. The authenticity that Asser's direct experience with some of the most dangerous inmates in the country brings to Starred Up in palpable in all of the group therapy sessions, and in Ol's passion to save those who civil society have decided are incapable of being saved. The film can be singled out as one of director David Mackenzie's finest works. He has since gone on to direct the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, and was previously known by indie cinema goers for films like Young Adam & Hallam Foe.
Jack O'Connell's immersion into the unhinged mind-set of Eric Love is nothing short of outstanding. Having scooped BAFTA Rising Star award in 2015, O'Connell has taken starring roles in both Angelina Jolie's Unbroken and Jodie Foster's Money Monster with George Clooney and Julia Roberts. Ben Mendelsohn, who won a British Independent Film award for his performance, brings an idiosyncratic, erratic and discomforting disposition to Eric's troubled father figure that is equally brilliant in its execution onscreen. Rupert Friend's well-mannered, affluent character at a cursory glance seems incongruous with the atmosphere of the jail. But it is testament to Friend's skill as an actor that his role as an outsider sees him occupy his own place within the brutal ecosystem.
Weaved into the narrative are subplots surrounding racism, homosexuality, institutional corruption and the dehumanization attached to incarceration. This is a film that offers few answers to the social and psychological problems it depicts. But it should leave you asking who actually does have the answers?