Starred Up

Starred Up ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Based on a script by a former prison therapist, Starred Up is a brutal and stark look at prison life that centers around a father and son trying to reconnect. What makes this film so successful, in a somewhat tired genre, is its laconic approach to exposition and its physical depiction of its characters' development.

Director David Mackenzie begins with a minimalist visual narrative so that whenever any information or exposition is handed to us, we devour them like the tiny bread crumbs they are. A toothbrush shiv, bottles of oil, double bubble, just an accumulation of little details. This minimalism coupled with the oppressive visual construct of a prison provides for a sort of claustrophobic chamber drama, replete with metal bars, tiny windows, and mesh wire.

The real stunning part of this movie is the language, and I'm not talking about the dialogue. The physical and visual language these characters converse in is fascinating and Mackenzie really knows how to get an authentic physical performance from his actors. The actual dialogue is mostly a series of extremely harsh expletives in terse and repetitive fashion, but the flying insults and chest thumping transform into a translatable language of seething hurt feelings. These characters are so wound up and have so much to say yet they are incapable of articulating themselves. The closest conversation the father and son can really have is by touching heads(a repeated image used in great fashion). This inability to communicate is just a symptom of prison and it's the reason why all the unfortunate outcomes that follow are always rooted behind some sort of misunderstanding.

Towards the end, the film transforms into a fairly standard chamber tragedy but earns such a vulnerable and tender moment from its two leads. Dialogue like, "Daddy's here" can get dangerously close to cheesy, but the cathartic moment of reconnection in a fatherly embrace works so well when prefaced by such an explosive and frustrating push and pull between the characters. In a strange and sublime way Starred Up does what many other great prison films have done as well: it becomes a story about family.

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