Familiarize yourself with the name Jack O’Connell, because this guy is going to blow up pretty soon. He absolutely kills it in ‘Starred Up’, his first prominent role since his great turn on ‘Skins’ a few years back. Starred Up, directed by David Mackenzie and written by Jonathan Asser, is a shocking and often intensely violent look into the life of a juvenile kid (O’Connell) who’s just ‘starred up’ into full-fledged prison. It also happens to be about the kid and his father (Ben Mendelsohn), who also resides in the same prison. Starred Up reminded me of the movie ‘Hunger’ in some ways, with a brutal and honest depiction of it’s European prison systems, as well as a quiet script that leans more on looks and physicality than characters speaking to one another. People will look back to this movie in a few more years when Jack O’Connell is the new Michael Fassbender, who also happened to be in Hunger; and while I really liked that movie, something about Starred Up pushed it over the edge for me. If anyone but O’Connell had been in the starring role, I don’t think it would have been anywhere near as good.
Like I said above, Starred Up opens with Eric Love (O’Connell) arriving at this new prison. After a violent misunderstanding with a fellow inmate, Eric is told to go to a therapy group hosted by a man named Oliver (Rupert Friend from Homeland). Meanwhile, Eric has his first encounters with his estranged father Neville, whose been in prison almost all of Eric’s life. As Eric starts to grow closer to his group-mates, his father becomes more agitated that he is putting his trust into these inmates that he doesn’t respect; especially the group leader Oliver. In the end, the real villains of the story become clear, in an intense nail-biter of a climax that I thought was going one way, only to have it turn around. There isn’t a ton of driving plot in Starred Up, as most of the story comes from these characters interacting with one another and trying not to kill each other.
The three main performances of the film really help sell the drama. O’Connell, Mendelsohn, and Friend are all terrific in the movie. Jack O’Connell seems to channel some of the fire he had with his amazing character ‘Cook’ from Skins in Starred Up. However, in this movie, it’s as if Cook was multiplied by five and thrown into close quarters for years. He is a total live wire in this movie, as you truly don’t know what the hell he is going to do scene-to-scene. One from the beginning, in which he bites down on a guards penis through his pants was especially insane. Mendelsohn plays his father Neville with the same kind of unpredictability, but a little more calm and relaxed; that is until the end of the movie. Rupert Friend, who quickly become one of my favorite characters from Homeland, is great as Oliver, the group therapist. It’s revealed that he isn’t even getting paid to be there, helping the inmates, but he still does it because he “needs to.” He gives the movie the little sentiment and positivity that it has, and is a perfect counterbalance to O’Connell’s Eric every time they’re on screen together.
What also really interested me, as it did with the movie ‘Hunger’, is just how little the guards and wardens care about their inmates. Granted, these aren’t documentaries, and narrative steps are taken to make a more dramatic story, but if circumstances like these are anywhere near what it’s actually like, then the worlds prison systems need a serious overhaul (not just America’s). The character of Oliver does everything that he can to help these inmates try and break the cycle, but at the end of the day, the momentum of the system is just too strong to break free from.
If you enjoyed reading this write-up, check this movie out! I believe it’s coming to San Antonio soon, and it’s already on VOD now. Be warned, it’s pretty violent, as director David Mackenzie didn’t pull any punches with his depiction of the English prison system. This is a tremendous first starring role for O’Connell, who is coming up next in Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’, playing the World War 2 and Olympic hero Louis Zamperini (check out the epic trailer if you haven’t seen it). It’ll be interesting to see him play a character like that; truly the other side of the coin than Eric Love or James Cook. Also, I think I can say with confidence that I’ll have a new entry on here every Wednesday and Sunday; so two a week. The next movie will be Matthew McConaughey’s 2011 crime thriller KILLER JOE, and from then on who knows? Thanks for checking out the blog and stay tuned for more reviews!