In an opening sequence, as he’s arriving to adult prison, Eric (Jack O’Connell) is given a thorough inspection in a moment that clues us in to the kind of movie Starred Up will be: a no-holds barred, explicit exploration of prison culture. Directed by David Mackenzie (Mister Foe, Perfect Sense), Starred Up is a more extreme and, often, more exciting exploration of themes MacKenzie has previously tackled. Eric, a violent drifter of sorts, grows up without a proper parent, learning to fend for himself — and, in a later scene, we learn the exact consequences of this and how it got him to this present state. Eric, for the first time in his adult life, meets his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a hardened criminal who encourages his son to play the game. A product of the “system,” he wants Eric to simply go along, keep his head down, and get out. Needless to say, it’s an irritation when his son starts making connections and plans.

Eric’s first order of business is to craft a makeshift blade (he does so differently than Reese Witherspoon in Freeway) and to conceal said blade in the light fixture of his cell. After fighting authority whenever he can, he’s taken into a rehabilitation course lead by Oliver (Rupert Friend). Oliver is a character who we know very little about: a young, fearless counselor, he’s not quite the savior a lesser film would set up; Oliver gains respect from group members — also violent offenders — as he stands up for them, encouraging an alternative approach.

As written by Jonathan Asser, a former counselor for youth offenders, this study of institutionalized behavior is often bleak, the film proving a spot-on study of violence and prison culture. (Though bookended by exterior shots, it takes place almost entirely in confined cells, locked hallways, and utilitarian common areas.) The film’s relationships are well-drawn, especially father and son, who pull upon years of pain and neglect while acting as two strangers separated by a larger system. For Neville and Eric, it’s too little too late — especially the latter, who’s become hell-bent on destruction.

This experience had me constantly on the edge of my seat, which is a notion I don’t take lightly. In traditional mainstream cinema, there are a certain set of rules for depictions of violence, but, free from those shackles, Mackenzie comes close to subverting them with truly brutal attacks staged while prisoners are at their most vulnerable; the film pulls virtually no punches when it comes to its more real, gritty moments, a big part of what makes Starred Up Mackenzie’s best film. While Mister Foe was a thematically chaotic film that never quite succeeded, what we see, here, is masterfully controlled cinema that isn’t afraid to mix some intimate emotional moments amidst the crushing blows.

Starred Up premiered at TIFF. One can see our complete coverage by clicking below.

Grade: A-

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