January 25, 2015

Starred Up

David Mackenzie, 2014
Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is moved to an adult prison where he realizes his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is also serving time.

Starred Up is the term for when a young criminal is relocated from a juvenile facility to an adult one. Mackenzie's prison drama is less of an epic drama like The Shawshank Redemption and more of a focus on a singular figure behind bars like 2009's A Prophet. It has that same grit, the same candor. At times it's tough to watch, some disturbing imagery and language. But it feels authentic. And if it weren't for movies like this, how would we ever visit what's behind those cold stone walls? Starred is bound to trigger memories of fellow British prisoner Charles Bronson, who Tom Hardy played in Nicholas Winding-Refn's 2008 Bronson film. Like Bronson, Eric Love is an uncontrollable force constantly at odds with the guards or anyone in any kind of position of authority. You are fed bits of his upbringing, which are obviously contributory to his life of crime that landed him in the situation he's in. Child abuse, an absent father, no guidance. He never really had a chance. And if it weren't for counselor/psychologist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), the system would just consume Eric and he would be another causality of the English justice system or would at the very least be a permanent prisoner number for the rest of his long life. The fact that he encounters his own father in the prison reinforces the need to confront his anger if he's going to move forward in any way. Eric's rage has snowballed to the point that it's at a boiling point. Oliver serves as the only relief valve, and if he doesn't at least try to mitigate the rage Deputy Governor Haynes is going to exterminate Eric to eliminate any more headache. It seems like there is always that one ambiguously neutral force like Baumer. They always stand as the critical liaison of the prisoners and the guards. It's likely the guards have become so jaded over the years that their expectations are incredibly low of the prisoners. They seemingly have no confidence that any of the prisoners can truly be rehabilitated. They would rather get through their daily shifts with the least amount of conflict, and they can reduce the conflict by inflicting their own force upon the prisoners. Fighting violence with violence, how much sense that makes.

The dialogue in this film is so quick and at times difficult to understand. You might want to watch it with the subtitles turned on (like me). Mackenzie manages to solicit a moderate amount of sympathy for Eric Love. If he doesn't manage to do this, the movie likely fails because it's difficult to get invested in a deplorable criminal. Eric is obviously a guilty person, rightfully serving his time. But at least there is some glimmer of hope that he will be able to be rehabilitated in some shape or form. You don't need a complete transformation with a story like this. You just need a slight arch, and this movie succeeds in bringing that.

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