Big Tim’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Starred up means you're leader."
When I say "prison," what do you think of? I'll tell you what comes to my mind: Pretty much the worst place on Earth. You're isolated, cut off from the outside world. You're thrown into a den of vipers, surrounded by hardened criminals, some of them lifers with nothing to lose. Violence is a way of survival in this awful place, and you'd better learn to employ it if you hope to live through even the first night.
That's kind of how most prison movies approach it. Many movies I've seen that are set in prison are ones in which you're kind of waiting for some horrible thing to happen. This is where David Mackenzie's "Starred Up" breaks from the mold. Yes, it's got it's share of violence and shifty characters to it. But it's not about the violence as much as the rehabilitation that takes place in within the prison's four walls.
The one prevailing emotion that comes out of a viewing of "Starred Up" is anger and its effect on the characters. If you think about, prison is a place where we house those in our society who have snapped, who have let their anger get the better of them one too many times. Eric Love (a starmaking turn for Jack O'Connell, for sure) is the prime example of this, as he is "starred up," or sent to adult prison at an early age (19) for his overtly violent nature. We see Eric get the lay of the land from the outset of the film, committing acts of violence to assert his dominance in this new environment. I was worried this was going to be a cliche prison film within the first 20 minutes, as we get sort of a standard prison admittance scene (where the new inmate strips naked and the guards check him for contraband, etc.) and the introduction of the mean warden character.
But where this movie breaks apart from every other prison movies you've scene is in the relationships that form among inmates and staff alike. Rupert Friend's Oliver is a freelance therapist who is there to help violent prisoners like Eric rehabilitate themselves and control their anger. This is where the movie turns into more than just a movie that focuses on survival inside a harsh setting but instead focuses on how the true function of prisons: To rehabilitate criminals into functional members of society. I feel like we, as a society, just throw these people into this place to rot away. Yes, some are beyond saving, but there have to be many of those who can one day rejoin society with the right training and the right help.
Another dynamic is introduced in this film when Ben Mendelsohn, who is absolutely incredible in this movie, comes to the forefront in his role as Eric's estranged father, Neville. Neville is a hardened criminal type, one who is constantly violent and knows he is beyond saving. However, he encourages his young son to work out his problems in Oliver's group meetings, to turn around his life and one day get out of this awful place. The Neville character stands in stark contrast to Eric and Mendelsohn is menacing at times and other sadly self-aware.
The entire cast is great in this movie and Mackenzie's direction is utterly superb. The greens and yellows of the prison is a different color palette than I was used to in terms of a prison movie (I usually think back to cool blues or muted grays) and the whole movie looked unique. This is definitely not meant as a feel-good movie in any way, although there is hope in the ending, but this movie represents a good spin on the prison film and offers a rare look in to this aspect of British society.
Also, for anyone outside of Great Britain, do yourself a favor and watch this film with subtitles on. You'll thank me later.