School of Hard Knocks: David Mackenzie’s Starred Up (2014) – DVD review
Any prison movie has to decide whether to do time like Scum or Shawshank. Refreshingly, here’s one that tries both approaches.
(David Mackenzie, 2013)
By rights, the prison movie ought to be the most derivative and samey of all genres. Stuck inside those four walls, with nowhere to go but the cell or the yard, and no way out bar the fast-track to hell or the patient, prudent approach, it really ought to be done by now. Yet – just like a real prison with its revolving door of new arrivals, all posturing to be the daddy – the prison movie eternally refreshes itself; those very clichés are the means by which it holds a mirror to society.
Starred Up is a particularly fine example for many reasons, not least a screenplay earned the hard way by real-life prison psychiatrist Jonathan Agger. His film makes no concession to outsiders; never leaving the prison complex, it is an act of cinematic immersion. Its opening sequence – the familiar study of the new arrival, strip-searched and marched to their new home – is dealt with at length, a decompression. Forget everyday life; this is sci-fi with English accents.
The plot is ruthlessly focused on that initial period of adjustment, following Jack O’Connell’s Eric – ‘starred up’ because he presented too violent a prospect for the youth offender system to deal with – as he figures out his strategy for survival. He is raw and animalistic, a caged beast who has only known pain and reacts in kind… yet his condition is universal. Eric was a big fish in a small pond; now those conditions have reversed. Starred Up could easily be a coming of age tale, or a workplace drama.
And the precision here is that all possibilities are mapped out. Eric is confronted with several father figures – one of them, in the film’s most striking if least plausible development, his actual father. Ben Mendelsohn’s Neville is an old-timer, a volatile lizard of a con whose shambling gait hides a fierce, coiled menace. Neville hopes to streamline Eric’s natural violence into authority, but Rupert Friend’s Oliver Baumer (like the writer, a prison psychiatrist) wants him to stamp it out completely.
Essentially, prison movies are either Scum or Shawshank, and this flirts with both, although inevitably the dice are loaded in favour of the former. Not since Ray Winstone has a young British actor made such a mark behind bars. O’Connell is a swaggering, terrifying threat, all the more so because he is out of his depth. It takes a certain paranoia to arrive with a fully-formed plan for making a shank and having screw-evasion props to hand in the form of two bottles of grease. O’Connell’s sheer physicality, preparing to do battle or fighting for his life in the best naked bathroom scene since Eastern Promises, is electrifying, but Eric is fascinating because of his intelligence.
Because – for all the violence – prison here is a state of mind. Eric shares Neville’s watchfulness and Baumer’s eloquence; indeed, the film’s best scenes show Eric taking control through talk rather than action, intimidating fellow cons and screws alike because he intellectualised the idea that he has nothing to lose. David Mackenzie films with a real feeling for the contradictions; the intensity of the set-pieces frequently gives way to lyrical shots of reflection, or the near-comedy of the group therapy scenes. Admittedly, there’s nothing here that, say, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest hasn’t already done, but there’s a pleasure in seeing Mackenzie mix directorial strategies with the same mercurial elan as Eric switches between coping mechanisms.