Admittedly, I had a very limited understanding prior to seeing “Starred Up” yesterday, as I had only seen one trailer before. I knew it was supposed to be a gritty prison drama, which it was… And I had no idea what the title actually meant. Well, now I know and knowing is half the battle.
In colloquial prison terms, a teenager prematurely transferred from a juvenile correctional facility to a regular prison – mostly due to violent and dangerous behaviour – is considered to be ‘starred up’. And in this film, it’s Eric (Jack O’Connell), whom we meet in the very first frame. Shortly after being locked in his new cell, he doesn’t waste a second and makes himself a makeshift blade from a toothbrush and a shaving razor. He then hides it skilfully inside a lamp and starts doing push-ups. He might be young, but he’s definitely not intimidated by the notion of facing real scary criminals. He’s dangerous, violent, explosive, unpredictable, fearless and strangely self-destructive. He immediately makes a few enemies, ends up battered by guards and locked in a solitary confinement – all this on his first day; this is the kind of guy Eric is. Also on his first day, he meets his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who seems to have spent a vast majority of his life behind bars and now is in a position of power among other prisoners. In an attempt to right some wrongs of his past, Neville wants to straighten up his son and make sure he doesn’t go further down the spiral of hatred and violence, which will surely result in his demise sooner rather than later. In an attempt to prevent that, Eric is forced to participate in group therapy led by the prison counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend), where he would have a chance to suppress his animalistic responses and heal his bruised personality.
Much has been said about prison dramas already to the point where this kind of film has become a genre on its own. Without a doubt, a good amount of the typical genre tropes your mind immediately goes to when the word ‘prison’ pops up in the context of a film you’d find in spades in “Starred Up”. It’s just as you’d imagine a modern film about life in prison – gritty, violent, grim… The wardens are brutal, the life is dangerous, the showers are… …let’s just say you need to watch your back, though (spoiler alert, I guess) you won’t find that staple prison rape scene in here, which is nice considering the truckload of problems the characters are already dealing with.
There’s no question here that the director David Mackenzie (known to me for “Young Adam”) envisioned this film to be more of a character piece, rather than a straight-up mood piece about the day-to-day grit of the prison life. In fact, we don’t really get to see much of that procedural way things are done behind bars. We never really delve into the nitty-gritty of how inmates interact with each other, form alliances and all that jazz. Every single one of those aspects seems to be glossed over in favour of focusing on Eric’s ordeal, which – to put it in the most polite way possible – is a bit over the top, to my mind.
All throughout the film, I couldn’t help but think how similar this film was to “Warrior” in that the main characters in both of those are built with way too many problems for my liking. I know there are people out there who were dealt a really crappy hand in life, but this is a bit too much. Born in a dysfunctional family, left by his father, eventually orphaned, put in foster care, abused… all before the age of 12, which put him on the downward spiral to eventually end up a murderer. And it doesn’t stop there, because it seems that everywhere he goes, Eric can make an enemy or two. It might be insensitive on my part, but this brooding, explosive demeanour of Eric’s removes him completely from reality to a point where I couldn’t possibly feel attached to his character and resigned myself to simply waiting for him to hit the brick wall, or slip on a banana peel.
In all seriousness, “Starred Up” eventually falls flat on its face in its attempt to ramp up the drama. It has nothing to do with the acting performances, which were more than fine, though at times I might have struggled understanding the dialogue, which is heavily laced with slang and accents. Nevertheless, despite my best intentions, I didn’t really care about anything that happened in this film. It might have started pretty well with Eric arriving in prison and being exposed to the brutality of life in the big boy’s house, but with every running minute, things got progressively more ridiculous. Between Eric’s violent and reclusive nature, the counsellor being weirdly driven to crack his thick shell and the father’s sudden change of heart, everything about the drama in “Starred Up” eventually started to look false and staged and by the end it would require a serious suspension of disbelief to get past how things wrap up.
This is what happens – yet again – when a film wants to carry more than it can handle. Don’t get me wrong, “Starred Up” is a perfectly serviceable prison drama (interestingly enough, it was shot in Belfast), but it successfully prevented me from establishing a bond with Eric (despite the fact he was a bit of an anti-hero), which for a character piece means a complete failure. Call me cynical and insensitive, but I can’t develop any sort of emotional response towards a character that cartoony and over-the-top. The only thing I could do was mutter silently ‘It’s not your fault… It’s not your fault… It’s not your fault…’