“Single cell. High risk.”
The hype on Jack O’Connell is real. And I’m only basing that sentiment on one film. Something tells me, though, that Unbroken in a couple weeks and ’71 next year will succeed at corroborating the notion because his turn in David Mackenzie‘s Starred Up is simultaneously fierce and vulnerable like few his age are capable of portraying. He and his castmates surely had plenty of avenues for inspiration thanks to writer Jonathan Asser basing his script on true life experiences made while serving as a voluntary therapist for hardened criminals in a high risk prison because each embodies his role with an intensity not easily manifested by those outside the system. Little happens plot-wise, admittedly, but this is jail we’re talking about—there isn’t a lot of room for twists and turns. Thankfully that was never the goal.
Mackenzie refuses to share a glimpse of the outside world throughout. The film is about incarceration and we are made into inmates just like nineteen-year old Eric Love (O’Connell). As a violent offender, the title serves as slang for where he’s at in the penal system. To be “starred up” means to have been moved out of the juvenile penitentiary early. This kid is so uncontrollable that he’s forced to line up with criminals who’ve been inside for years and some who will never be offered the chance of escape. But as his cellblock’s kingpin Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) says, the term is also a signifier for leadership potential. It means he can handle himself, that he’ll refuse to back down, and that he knows exactly where he is. Eric’s in the now and freedom is long way off.
This is a brutal look at men devoid of hope on both sides of the law. Just as Eric readies for the long haul by burning his toothbrush bristles into a sticky paste to hold the blade from his safety razor as a shiv, Deputy Governor Haynes (Sam Spruell) surveys his newest ward and discerns how his inclusion may upset the apple cart. Guards are bought off, retribution is paid in full, and any chance someone in uniform or jumper has to get off a good pop will be taken. And for it all to begin on a misunderstanding simply shows how volatile the environment is and how on edge everyone within has become. Eric’s first brush with solitary might have been an accident, but the carnage wrought to explain definitely wasn’t.
It’s a wild first twenty or so minutes from Eric’s quiet intake shown in full to seeing his inventory of goods and finally how he is able to use each innocuous object to better his chances in a fight. And what a battle it is as this young man readies for assault and does whatever is necessary to gain an advantage despite being outnumbered five to one. The incursion spills out from his cell to the hall and eventually down to an unorthodox group therapy session led by Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend channeling the screenwriter). This is where Eric receives the benefit of the doubt for what might be the first time in his short life as Oliver sticks his neck out for no other reason than assuming the guards were more than likely using excessive force.
If you start to believe the whole thing is about to go into melodramatics so that this saintly outsider can reach the troubled boy and set him on a righteous path, however, you’d be sorely mistaken. A little of that does occur, but Asser and Mackenzie know how unlikely in real life such a wholesale reversal of who a person is at his core can prove. So for every “breakthrough” in anger management comes the poke with a stick that shows success will never be one hundred percent. It could be from the provocations of fellow group members attempting to get a rile out of him like Hass (Anthony Welsh) or Ty (David Ajala) or perhaps it’s the boy’s father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who fate has given one more opportunity to fail as a father.
The dynamic within the prison is therefore slowly revealed as Eric traverses the multiple levels, gangs, and relationships it houses. Dad wants to be his steward but doesn’t realize his aggressive approach to doing so sets his son up to show weakness. Jago (Raphael Sowole) seeks to take him out at the behest of an elaborately woven string of men behind men spanning prisoners and jailers alike. And Oliver hopes to teach how to focus his rage and frustration to be better utilized than in an explosion of unbridled action. Haynes allows this opportunity because he knows Eric will falter at least once to get thrown back to his cage. But he doesn’t see the big picture that Oliver’s lessons have already permeated to no longer make his physical presence necessary for them to thrive.
This is a machine built to take in newcomers, chew them up, and spit them out. If they become too tough to gnaw, alternative means of disengagement are arranged. Because if you don’t play by the carefully regulated rules set between inmate leader Spencer and the Deputy Governor, you aren’t worth your life. This isn’t some pithy revelation we can’t all assume occurs in prisons all over the world nor a juicy plotline that goes beyond watching whether or not a violent kid will survive it, but seeing the authenticity of how it plays out through three-dimensional characters positioned at every level surely makes it memorable and engrossing. After all, Eric isn’t the only one learning his way through a rigged system. Neville is having his eyes opened to its oppressive ways and his own expendability too.
It’s through this secondary focus that father son/drama is introduced—not in a feel good hug capacity, but in a blood before status one. O’Connell and Mendelsohn go toe to toe more than once with words and fists, each battle more brutal and demoralizing in shared defeat. In the end there are no winners in this film straight down from Eric to Haynes. A couple small victories are had, but they are of the variety where the initial smile leads into an even more incendiary wake. The system fears Oliver’s success, he fears losing the opportunity to make a difference, and every inmate fears finding himself in a noose he didn’t tie himself. Survival must transcend racial lines, faux social order, and ego; each prisoner’s ability to stand tall proving only as effective as those by his side.
 Jack O’Connell in Starred Up distributed by Tribeca Film.
 David Ajala and Jack O’Connell in Starred Up distributed by Tribeca Film.
 Ben Mendelsohn in Starred Up distributed by Tribeca Film.