A Prison of Family and Indifference in Starred Up

starred-up-3Starred Up begins with matters of procedure, that of Eric Love’s (Jack O’Connell) processing into prison. We see him get strip-searched, brought through gates, and left in his room. We see him effortlessly and impressively make a shiv and hide it. We see him pass through the daily prison routines of meals and time in the yard. And through it all, we can see on Eric’s face the barely-contained rage, not just at being in prison, but at being controlled. That’s what Starred Up is about in the end: uncontrolled machismo in a place that is defined by control, and how control that is forced by others is never as strong (or worthwhile) as the control you earn for yourself.

There are several threats to Eric gaining control of himself, none worse than his own father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who’s also locked up in this particular prison. Once Neville comes into the mix, the powder keg is lit, and we see Eric transform into barely more than a wild animal, lashing out at anything and anyone that he considers a threat. Eric has been so wounded over the years, both by his father’s absence and subsequent abuse by his caretakers, that his first instinct is towards violence rather than to allow anyone else to control him. This is obviously a bad fit for a convict, especially so when the prison administrators seem to already be convinced that Eric is a lost cause who will be locked up for life.

That’s where Baumer (Rupert Friend) comes in, as a volunteer counselor at the prison that leads a therapy group for some of the more volatile inmates. In Baumer’s mind, Eric would most benefit being challenging to take control of his anger and his defensiveness so the outside pressures and conflicts won’t lead to the same violent reactions he’s always had. And the nature of the group seems to bear that theory out; the members are still open to bursts of fury here and there, but they also police themselves and each other, and a clearly supportive environment is born. This presents a sharp contrast to Neville, who barks orders at Eric rather than encouraging him. Yet Neville still comes off as a somewhat empathetic figure, as his combative interactions with Eric seem to grow out of a desire to make Eric better so he can escape Neville’s fate. Unfortunately Neville goes about this in a very egotistical way, as much concerned with assuaging his own guilt as helping Eric, which is why his influence is less than healthy here.

But the true tragic influence on all of this comes not from Eric, Neville or Baumer’s group, but from the dismissive, uncaring prison system that surrounds them all. The prison administration seems all too eager to write off Eric and have no interest in trying to rehabilitate him. They all seem content to just try and control him, much in the way Neville tries to, but not even because they think it might help Eric, only because they don’t see any other worthwhile option. While there isn’t much in the way of specific commentary (though Eric astutely notes that the prison staff would rather everyone stay locked up forever so they can keep getting paid) the implication is still clear: the system doesn’t care about the people it contains, as long as they stay contained.

With all of this grim tragedy, it greatly helps that there’s a level of black humor in the film which actually serves the core story too. Neville escorts and lectures Eric to his first therapy session like he’s taking him to his first day of school, clearly demonstrating how Neville perceives his relationship with Eric. The back-and-forth amongst the therapy group also brings some chuckles, and mirrors Eric’s growing comfort within the group. Like those scenes, a gym sequence where Eric spars with his group mates while Neville goads him is a great externalization of the conflict between him and his father, and the potential for growth with the group. There’s also a level of detail and nuance to the whole world that allows it to feel lived-in and real while also serving as that externalization. We only get glimpses of the prison ecosystem when it relates to Eric’s story but it’s clear that there is a lot more going on outside the frames of film.

The craftsmanship on display here is so high it instantly makes director David McKenzie someone I will pay attention to in the future. As far as Jack O’Connell goes he is as advertised, and I now I’m even more eager to get a look at ‘71 and Unbroken to see more of his work. And as for Starred Up, it may not be my favorite movie of the year but it is a truly great film which combines prison film archetypes with inspiring personal growth, without turning into schmaltz or uninspired genre tropes. It’s a movie that hits with great impact, and great fury… all of it controlled in pursuit of the story.

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