Before press screenings of Starred Up, critics were handed a comprehensive glossary of British prison slang. That piece of paper was very...educational, the idioms on it ranging from your basic jail verbs (“top” = “to kill," “kick off the back door” = “anal sex”) to more curious slang like “bacon” (any type of sex offender) and “fraggle” (a vulnerable prisoner).
Needless to say, it was a most ominous harbinger of the film that was about to start—you don’t get a sheet like that before settling in for Planes: Fire and Rescue. But what makes Starred Up such an intense and riveting experience is that, despite the often unintelligible brogues in which its characters speak, director David Mackenzie’s essential new film so vividly depicts the cutthroat culture of prison life that nothing gets lost in translation.
The title is the only term you really need to know: “Starred up” refers to a teenage offender so unruly that he’s prematurely promoted from juvenile to adult jail. Eric (rising star Jack O’Connell) is one such problem child, an angry and resourceful 19-year-old bruiser who immediately seems less like a prisoner than he does a resident, the homegrown product of a broken system. Eric walks into the belly of the maximum-security complex like he’s been preparing himself for prison his whole life, but it would be more accurate to say that his whole life has been preparing him for prison. If anything, incarceration is practically the family business—Eric’s father, Nev (a live-wire Ben Mendelsohn), lives in a cell just down the block.
It’s not exactly a joyous family reunion. Eric and Nev don’t share a familial bond so much as they do a cagey mutual awareness, the father—a powerful lieutenant in the prison community—refusing to do a damn thing as his son is dropped into the deep end and forced to navigate through the gang crossfire into which every new transfer is dropped. In fact, it isn’t until Eric is conscripted into the jail’s combustible psychotherapy group that Nev begins to make his presence known. The idea that his son might be molded by other prisoners (of other races) is nothing less than a direct assault on what little remains of Nev’s pride as a father.
The cinema has always been attracted to penitentiaries for their combination of chaos and clean lines, so it isn't easy to make a prison movie that feels genuinely new. Starred Up is such a vital film in part because Mackenzie would rather aspire to verisimilitude than novelty, the director selectively cribbing from the classics until his story acquires a ferocity all its own. Echoes of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped reverberate through Eric’s isolation, his restlessness, and the extent to which his survival depends on a series of careful gestures. Steve McQueen’s Hunger provides a more contemporary and geographically fitting cornerstone, its influence seen in the stiff rigor of Mackenzie’s compositions and the tunnel-vision focus with which they achieve a sensual immediacy.
But if Starred Up traverses well-worn territory, it never feels the least bit derivative. Each familiar prison movie trope it trots out—shower attacks, beating someone on the first day, an evil warden—is validated by the conviction of Jonathan Asser’s script (Asser once worked as a therapist in a London jail). It's all so suffocatingly immersive that every concession to cliché feels like a merciful gasp of fresh air.
It’s difficult to prepare yourself for an experience like this (even with a cheat sheet of dirty British swears), but Starred Up is even more surprising in light of the man who made it. David Mackenzie is hardly a hack, but the barren eroticism of his 2003 film Young Adam and the candied hipster romance of Tonight You’re Mine (2011) never hinted that the director was capable of, or even interested in, creating something so raw. This story of a kid pushing up against the ceiling of his potential is also a self-portrait of a man bursting through a ceiling of his own; now, finally, Mackenzie is a major filmmaker, and it’s safe to say that he’ll never have to make another Ashton Kutcher vehicle.
On the other hand, one can only hope that he’ll re-team with Jack O’Connell in the future. O’Connell’s performance is nothing short of brilliant, the wasted youth pin-balling across the prison halls like a Molotov cocktail burning in a bottle that won’t break. Watching his tortured humanity slowly bubble up to the surface is one of the most epic and exciting journeys that you’ll on screen all year.
And Mendelsohn matches him pound for pound, embodying Nev as a lifer who’s finally found something to live for and refuses to let it go, a rabid dog frothing over the last bone in the world. O’Connell and Mendelsohn create such a rich dynamic that the film is needlessly overreaching when it promotes a major villain in the third act, contriving to introduce even more antagonists into a story about a kid who naturally antagonizes everyone he meets. Nevertheless, Starred Up ends with a powerhouse punch to the gut, closing with a moment that epitomizes the tough-luck tenderness that makes this such an unforgettable film.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.