Prison films are a horrid, but very popular, subgenre of films these days. One of the most iconic films of all time, The Shawshank Redemption, is a prison film. The hottest show on TV at the moment, Orange is the New Black, is centered around a prison. There are many prison films, including the overlooked and underrated Animal Factory, and they are all oddly compelling because of their dark, terrifying nature lending itself to some intense character studies. One of the more grim prison dramas of recent years is Starred Up, a look into a side of prison life hardly ever given the justice it deserves.
The basic prison film mould is simple – someone does something wrong, and is sent to prison. They aren’t particularly cruel or evil, they just made a terrible mistake. At the outset, they are not suited for the ghastly life of a prisoner, but they encounter some very bad prisoners who taunt them, abuse them and force them to either adapt to the grueling life of prison, or perish. Starred Up doesn’t do that – instead, we are introduced to Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a young man recently “starred up” (which implies a transfer from a youth detention facility to full prison). Eric is basically the very epitome of how not to have a good prison life – from the outset, he is cocky, arrogant, short-tempered and vile. He makes enemies as far as he goes, and by the end of the film, I don’t think he has gained a single friend or ally. Fine, there are some films (maybe even in the subgenre) which show the rough and misguided protagonist learning his or her lesson. Starred Up isn’t one of them. As much as we want Eric to see the error of his ways and become a good, functional human being, it just proves to be impossible, and for continuity’s sake, it is genius.
Jack O’Connell had a year any young actor would dream of in 2014 – not only was he in the epic World War II drama Unbroken, but he also was in British indie films Starred Up and 71. O’Connell is an anomaly – he is without a doubt a leading man, but he lacks that very charismatic quality a leading man is supposed to have. Instead, he is the epitome of the working class young man – and in Starred Up, he exploits that quality perfectly. He is visceral and very intense, and of course very scary, because it is clear he approached the role with a fiery intensity, and gave everything to it. He is actually terrifying in the role.
The breakout star, however, was Ben Mendelsohn, who plays an inmate who just happens to be Eric’s absent father. O’Connell and Mendelsohn have great chemistry, and Mendelsohn in particular is strangely endearing in the role. It is a pity this film was completely overlooked everywhere, including with critics, because Mendelsohn gives an amazing performance here. Rounding out the cast is Rupert Friend, who does his best with the limited material given to Oliver, the prison counselor battling to keep his sanity around prisoners who just resist his efforts to rehabilitate them.
Starred Up is a gritty, intense film with a deep sense of dread and horror flowing throughout. It is a great character study about those who have, through their actions, been removed from society and placed into an even more vicious and cruel one. The film begs the question – do they deserve it, or not? It is a great film, and one of the best of the year for sure.