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Starred Up (2014)

One Love

Sad, but true: the modern prison drama is a genre unto itself. On some level, many are the same as the last. From The Shawshank Redemption to Oz to Orange is the New Black to David Mackenzie's latest, Starred Up, the utterly edible concept of lifetime incarceration is soured by beats and archetypes that audiences can now sleepwalk through. We enter high-security facilities via some relatively sheepish newbie who must straddle lines racial, social, and psychopathic. We meet the mentor, the block bully, the counselor who wants to make a difference; shower-attack scene happens at the mid-way mark; we reflexively scrunch up our noses at grimy trays of lunch-room slop.

Maybe it's because, by design, prison pictures aren't afforded the breathing room of Sci-Fi or Westerns, but watching these things can be like scanning gray walls for the odd speck of color. That color often comes from the performances (sometimes the writing). In the case of Starred Up, Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn break the emotional mold with a final twenty minutes I still can't shake. On a dime, Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Asser turn a cookie-cutter prison flick into impactful, must-see entertainment.

I'm not gonna lie: almost everything leading up to the good stuff is mediocre. Despite being competently put together and well-acted, the film subtly belies its own premise. "Starred Up" refers to an inmate who has been prematurely transferred from juvenile detention to an adult facility. As Eric Love, O'Connell plays nineteen, but looks and carries himself like his real-life twenty-four years. Had the filmmakers skewed younger, I might not have questioned why this character was supposed to be exceptional. In many scenes, he looks the same age as his fellow inmates--most of whom also act like dangerous, petulant children.

American audiences may find some intrigue in cutting through the screenplay's thick British prison slang.* But for every colorful phrase or sickly funny moniker ("Fraggle" means "fragile prisoner", "bag head" means "heroin addict"), there are a dozen lines of dialogue in which "fuck" is used as noun, conjunction, adjective, and verb. These aren't Tarantino profanity mosaics, either--just muscled up dimwits yelling threats at one another while trashing their cells.

I'll also step lightly onto the ignorance ledge and ask why a prison full of murderers, rapists, and assorted scumbags would feature a pool table in the middle of the cell block--and allow inmates to have cofeemakers in their cells. None of these are used in the course of the film (which is puzzling), but they underscore Starred Up's inherent lack of danger: why am I supposed to be scared/impressed that Eric has been transferred to this alleged Hell on Earth? Do they not have enough chalk for the cues?

The central drama here involves Eric discovering that his Dad, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is in the same facility. It's unclear how much interaction they've had prior to this, but Neville takes it as a point of pride to look out for his son (kinda). He advises him not to race-mix, socially, and urges him to keep his mouth shut. There are also some shenanigans involving the weird warden (Sam Spruell) trying to shut down the aforementioned do-gooder counselor's (Rupert Friend) group-therapy sessions, but this is largely a father/son show--one we've seen too many times to count.

Despite all this, I highly recommend Starred Up for that last twenty minutes. They come out of nowhere, and slide a hot emotional shiv right between the ribs. I don't want to spoil anything (people need a reason to leave the house, after all), but Eric and Neville find themselves on the wrong side of two very powerful, very deadly people. We're led to believe that the Love family line could very well end in the big, anonymous basement of a dank prison. Asser and Mackenzie switch from the broad to the achingly specific, capturing a fragile yet resilient genetic bond that will overcome decades of emotional abuse in order to survive. Eric and Neville's final scene together is surprising, warm, and indelible.

Like Tom Hardy's breakout turn in another British prison flick, Bronson, Jack O'Connell mines lots of emotive richness from his character's complex psychological landscape. Eric love is funny, scary, pitiful, and tender--as are cinema's most charismatic movie punks (think Mark Renton or Alex DeLarge, minus the poetic, street-trash intellect). Though Mackenzie's movie has a lot of problems elsewhere, it is noteworthy because the director sets off a bona fide firecracker here. More than that, he blows up a star.

Chicagoans! Starred Up is now playing at Facets Cinematheque.

*I'm glad Tribeca Film included a mini-glossary with the screener.

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