A brooding romantic in the tradition of Nicholas Ray and Francois Truffaut, Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Mister Foe) would seem ill suited for a realistic prison drama. His films are rooted in a sense of liberty: his characters behave unpredictably, often changing the course of their lives on a whim, and the choreographic camera movements and highly physical performances of his actors evoke a world brimming with possibility. One can easily imagine a prison film by Mackenzie being overwrought or unconvincing, yet Starred Up, while entirely characteristic, says a good deal about what it means to live behind bars. One of Mackenzie's ongoing themes is that the way people live determines how they use their bodies. In Starred Up, he applies this perspective to lifelong prisoners, depicting them as modern mutants—part animal, part machine.
Mackenzie's perspective never feels overbearing, however, because Jonathan Asser's screenplay grounds the film in an authoritative portrayal of prison life. Asser worked as a therapist in a maximum-security London prison for several years; according to the film's press notes, he was on set throughout the shoot to vet every detail for accuracy. Viewed as a docudrama about the challenge of socializing violent convicts, Starred Up succeeds brilliantly, delineating the issue without resorting to platitudes or sentimentality. Indeed the protagonist resists our sympathy for nearly the entire first half. Nineteen-year-old Eric (Jack O'Connell) has been "starred up" from a juvenile detention center to an adult facility because of his compulsively violent behavior. When he attacks a group of guards in the new facility, the warden declares that one more violent episode will land him in solitary confinement indefinitely. The prison therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend), intervenes, inviting Eric to join his therapy group in hope of curbing the boy's destructive impulses. But since the group consists only of violent offenders, fights often break out before any real discussion can take place. Moreover, Eric has already spent most of his life as a convict and doesn't believe that anyone can rehabilitate him.
One can understand his cynicism; in a sense, Eric was fated to be a prisoner from birth. His father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn, even scarier here than in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom), is a violent convict himself, and he's been serving a life sentence in the same prison since Eric was four years old. The irony of Starred Up is that Nev and Eric can begin to mend their broken relationship only when they're incarcerated together. The older man regards Eric's arrival as a belated opportunity to do right by his son, though he's been so thoroughly dehumanized that he doesn't know how to express his concern healthily. In one of their first encounters, Nev persuades Eric to agree to group therapy by scaring him. If he doesn't get in line, Nev warns, the guards will kill him and make it look like a suicide. "It happens all the time," he says brusquely. "So play their game and they'll leave you alone."
Asser doesn't reveal that Nev and Eric are father and son until 30 minutes in, and not until the 20-minute mark does he divulge anything about Eric's background. Until then, he simply immerses the viewer in the experience of living in a maximum-security prison, where the immediate threat of violence or degradation overwhelms any sense of past or future. Only seconds into the movie, Eric is admitted, stripped naked by guards, and subjected to a cavity search, in a scene that evokes farmers inspecting livestock. Mackenzie shows this process in real time, underlining the dehumanization that Eric submits to on a regular basis. Revelations about his parentage and his years in foster care (when he was repeatedly raped by one of his guardians) may not alter our fundamental understanding of him, but they're still surprising; the opening scenes make it hard to believe that Eric has experienced anything that might be described as childhood.
As soon as the guards deposit Eric in his cell, he goes to work making a shiv, using a lighter to melt the handle of his toothbrush and sinking a razor blade into it; he then creates a makeshift screwdriver to open up a lighting fixture and hides his weapon under the bulb. It's a remarkable sequence, using a few specific actions to convey the young man's hardened, survivalist mentality. After a few brief shots delineating the layout of the cell block and prison courtyard, Mackenzie returns to the cell, where Eric is napping. An inmate from a neighboring cell knocks on the door to introduce himself (delivering one of the first audible lines of dialogue); Eric snaps awakes and instinctively attacks the stranger, accidentally knocking him unconscious. Eric drags the man to the end of the wing, so that the guards might take him to the prison hospital; then, anticipating violent retaliation, he readies himself for battle, running back to his cell and breaking the legs off his desk to use as clubs. The riot squad disarms him, but the fight ends in a stalemate when Eric clenches one guard's testicles between his teeth.
This is strong medicine, yet it's also exhilarating. As usual, Mackenzie creates a sense of careening momentum, cutting briskly from one shocking detail to another or executing fast, nimble camera moves to follow characters from room to room. Even his use of color adds to the film's visceral impact: though prison movies are usually cast in blues and grays, Mackenzie had most of the cells painted yellow or orange, and some crucial scenes play out in deep red lighting. (The room where Oliver conducts the therapy group is painted in faded shades of green, which has a subtly calming effect.) As a result, the prisoners' intense emotional states seem almost tangible.
In Starred Up, violence is part of everyday communication, practically no different from speech. The inmates have lived amid violence for so long that they're always primed to fight; in fact Eric is so indoctrinated that he hasn't yet learned when not to. Mackenzie communicates this primarily through the body language of his performers, staging the action so fluidly and in such meticulous detail that the movie often suggests a monstrous ballet. Consider the early scene in which Nev meets with the leader of a prison gang to request that Eric be left alone. When the gang leader equivocates, Nev smacks him across the mouth, only to resume speaking calmly the next moment. Mackenzie presents the conversation in an unbroken shot, and in this context the gesture feels like punctuation, rather than a threat. A similar moment occurs when Nev roughly twists the ear of his lover before kissing him; he can't express any feeling of vulnerability without a qualifying act of violence.
Eric agrees to join Oliver's group only when the therapist admits to his own violent impulses. "I don't care about you," Oliver says when Eric tries to fend him off. "In fact, I want to hurt you." ("Now we're getting somewhere," Eric replies.) When Nev agrees to join his son in the group, setting off a series of events that precipitate the tragic conclusion, he can't believe that his son would want to settle their issues by talking. At the very suggestion of honest conversation, Nev rips off his shirt and challenges Eric to a fistfight; when Eric declines, Nev goes mad and starts striking out in every direction. "Get me off this fuckin' wing!" he shouts repeatedly, his voice so loud it echoes throughout the entire prison. Here is a man so convinced he's irredeemable that he'd rather behave like a rabid animal than confront his buried humanity. It's a terrifying sequence; Nev seems to be devolving before our eyes.
[Spoiler alert: The story's conclusion is noted below.]
In the end the most astonishing moments of Starred Up may be those of physical tenderness, which stand out like flashes of color in a black-and-white movie. Short, surprising sequences show Eric alone in his cell, jumping up to touch the ceiling or making funny faces for his own amusement. These moments hint at the emotional breakthrough of the film's penultimate shot, in which Eric and Nev—finally reconciled, but only as they're about to be separated once more—gently rub heads in lieu of an embrace (both men's hands are cuffed behind their backs). The image, ironically evoking a mother animal nuzzling her cub, shows that Eric and Nev have at last reclaimed their human need to love and be loved. (Unsubtly, the men's surname is Love.) Whereas Asser's script gives dramatic form to the pervasive violence of prison life, Mackenzie's images alert us to the life-affirming spontaneity of which all people are capable, and which enables people to change their lives, no matter where.