Overview: A violent 19-year-old is transferred to an adult prison, where he quickly makes some dangerous enemies and is reunited with his estranged father. Distributed by Tribeca Film, 106 minutes, not rated.
Necessary Discomfort: This is not an easy film to watch. It’s an unapologetic, unflinching glance at a piece of a man’s disturbed journey in prison. Enjoyment and entertainment are not the reactions most will have after a viewing, but rather equal parts of fascination and discomfort. Starred Up doesn’t watch like an overdone, dramatic production that attempts to shock viewers with examples of the harsh realities of prison. It doesn’t feel contrived or manufactured. Director David Mackenzie weaves his story seamlessly through the cell blocks and halls where these characters fight both internal and external battles that we cannot even begin to understand. The violence is visceral, displayed in a matter-of-fact manner that makes it seem as natural and instinctive as brushing your teeth in the morning (assuming you use a toothbrush to actually brush your teeth rather than melting it down into a weapon like these guys).
Like Father Like Son: The dynamic between Eric and Neville Love is turbulent at best to begin with. Mackenzie never takes the time to spoon-feed the viewer with any flashbacks or background on their past relationship. We’re just expected to jump in where we’re dropped off and watch it repeatedly develop and implode until it builds to a climax, resulting in one of the most jolting and emotionally charged scenes I’ve seen this year on screen. Neville’s desire to protect his son and teach him a lesson at the same time combined with Eric’s resentment and uninhibited anger create one of the most brutal and complicated yet honest father/son relationships I’ve ever seen. Their progress (and regress) never feels rushed or manufactured, while their exchanges are fueled by basic instincts and gut reactions, amplified by the claustrophobic walls of a prison.
Starred Up: The acting in this film is phenomenal across the board. Rupert Friend is a scene stealer as Oliver Baumer, a volunteer prison therapist who holds group sessions with the most violent criminal offenders to deal with both his own demons and theirs. Ben Mendelsohn is the perfect father you love to hate and hate to love as he struggles to mentor an estranged son who is as volatile and unstable as he is. But the real star here is Jack O’Connell, who plays Eric Love. He embodies this character, embracing the anger to the point that it boils over. His fury burns white hot and his cries cut deep, filling every shot with raw, unsettling emotion. O’Connell’s expected to explode into stardom this winter with the anticipated Oscar darling Unbroken, but it’s here in Starred Up that we will all eventually look back on as his breakthrough performance.