David Mackenzie’s startling and brutal prison film Starred Up brilliantly upends genre conventions, offering the familiar glimpse into hell that one expects from this sort of milieu, but taking it a step further psychologically by focusing on a surprising, compelling father-son dynamic that comes off as one of the most disturbing displays of dysfunctional family bonding that I’ve ever seen. Jack O’Connell is riveting as a 19 year old violent offender who is “starred up” (or transferred) from juvenile detention to an adult facility, where he encounters any number of obstacles, including one he never expected – meeting his estranged and unstable father behind bars, played by the amazingly skeevy Ben Mendelsohn, who has fast become one of my absolute favorite actors. This is a violent movie, both physically and emotionally, and O’Connell lets it all hang out in more ways than one; similar to Tom Hardy’s transformative work in Bronson, this is a film that required intense physical dedication at all times, and O’Connell burns up the screen with charisma and rage to spare.
Mendelsohn, who has essayed some of the most memorable cinematic creeps in recent memory (Animal Kingdom, Killing them Softly, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blacksea, the Netflix series Bloodline), is again beyond engrossing to watch, his every move worth studying, as he creates a tragic and bizarrely sympathetic portrait of a man who will never be able to make things better for himself or his son. Rupert Friend, so good as Quinn on Homeland, is a prison therapist who attempts to help O’Connell and a variety of other inmates. The tightly wound script was written by Jonathan Asser, who based the story on his experiences as a prisoner rehab specialist. Mackenzie’s direction is crisp and clean, with a stylish but un-showy style that relies more on exacting camera placement than overt tricks and flourishes. The economical and compact editing only helps to ramp up the tension from scene to scene. This is excellent, truly hard-hitting stuff.