Starred Up is, in a word, extreme. While essentially it’s a drama about the relationship between a son and his father, the level of authenticity and violence in a deeply disturbing environment prevent it from ever getting soppy, perhaps until the final scene.
Jack O’Connell stars as Eric Love, a young offender who has been ‘Starred Up’, a term which refers to young offenders who are sent to adult prison early because the young offenders institution that previously accommodated them could no longer handle them. Love, owing to a childhood full of abuse, has serious anger management problems and knows how to fight. Making a shiv out of a safety razor and a toothbrush in a few seconds, he’s extremely dangerous.
He becomes a problem to the prison management when his short fuse, brute strength and incredible ability to take control of a situation even with so few resources, get him into a number of fights in which he seriously injures other prisoners and guards. Taking out two guards dressed in riot gear by sticking a blade in the throat of a third, and then in a separate incident threatening to bite a guard’s manhood off in order to get the rest of them to back down, it was difficult not to admire his ability to gain control. Perfect acting combined with bucket loads of blood, make for grittily unpleasant fight scenes in which Love is verging on animalistic.
When it is revealed to us that another one of the inmates is Eric’s father, things start to make more sense as light is shone on why Eric is the way he is, and introduce the central question: Can Eric change? The prison therapist played by Rupert Friend, thought he could while the prison management don’t think the question is even worth asking.
In amongst all of this, there are the usual prison movie themes of showers, blades, corrupt guards and a formidable prison warden that move the film towards its inevitable and gripping climax before we see a glimmer of hope. And after all the turmoil, to see in the final scene, two of the hardest bastards you’ve ever come across connecting emotionally, may even bring a tear to your eye.
A violent and realistic prison drama with the scent of an emotional centre, Starred Up will become Jack O’Connell’s big break. The direction and performances create drama that is a paradox: While it’s distasteful, unnerving and almost never enjoyable to watch, it’s so engrossing that it’s almost as impossible to take your eyes off it.