British filmmaker David MacKenzie’s Starred Up has something in common with another British prison drama, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. Both feature a protagonist with serious anger management issues. While Bronson was a stylish and hyper-violent account of a real-life and infamous prisoner who went by the name Charles Bronson, Starred Up is based on a script by a psychotherapist called Jonathan Asser, who has had experience treating prisoners with anger management issues.
The relatively calmer and slow-paced beginning introduces us to the 19-year old teenager named Eric Love played by Jack O’Connell who has just been transferred to an adult prison because he has been deemed unfit to be kept in a juvenile prison due to his too violent nature. The film’s title refers to this transfer or “promotion”. Eric, on arriving here, realizes that there is something worse than being in prison – being in the same prison as his dad, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn being his usual psychotic self). Eric has his share of issues but we learn that his dad has bigger issues and which, obviously, played a big part in Eric ending up here in the first place.
Both of their issues hugely interfere not only with the smooth functioning of this prison, particularly a therapy group run by Oliver (Rupert Friend). Oliver has personal reasons for maintaining this group and desperately tries to get Eric into it and make things better for him. Seeing that the film is about sociopaths struggling with deep-seated issues – some of whose origins are not fully explained – a certain amount of violence is to be expected. These tense moments sometimes show up unexpectedly and it only intensifies once we get to the end. Just like Bronson, the film examines violent characters and what triggers their self-destructive behavior.
Some of the no-holds-barred violent scenes may be hard to watch but this is the kind of film that you want to keep watching regardless of them because this is filmmaking of the highest order. McKenzie takes enough time with the characters, showing their habits, giving a sense of the prison environment, the hostility, the gangster power structure inside and the prison officials who are capable of doing anything. I may not be the only one who has noticed this but O’Connell’s acting style is quite similar to Tom Hardy’s and here, he reminds you of Hardy in Bronson (sorry for bringing it up again and again). It’s as if he is Hardy’s twin brother or something, but with a different face.