Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenplay: Jonathan Asser
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, David Ajala, Peter Ferdinando, Gershwyn Eustache Jr., Ashley Chin, Raphael Sowole, Gilly Gilchrist, Tommy McDonnell, Frederick Schmidt, Sam Spruell, Rupert Friend
Screened at: Critics’ screener, NYC, 8/30/14
Opens: August 27, 2014
Because no film in recent memory has had the problem of communicating dialogue so notably (in fact this incomprehensibility feels like a director’s artistic choice to focus the audience on the physicality), you have to go into this film knowing that you will miss at least half of the words. So don’t walk about in fifteen minutes. The dialogue does not get any clearer, but the acting, the authenticity of prison life, the father-son relationship are so spot-on that you will soon consider this a prison drama like no other.
Bursts of dialogue jump at us as though being televised like sound bites on a TV channel mix, with sudden fights among the prison population (just try and saying something about a fellow convict’s mother) to form what some penologists have already called a good picture of what really goes on behind bars. Yet despite the diurnal violence, “Starred Up” does not match Steve McQueen’s 2008 movie “Hunger,” about Bobby Sands in showing the deplorable condition of the jails.
It doesn’t have to. There is nothing political about “Starred Up,” unless the movie will be used as a vehicle to get politicians to do something about an environment that turns people guilty of misdemeanors into violent felons who will wind up back in prison within weeks or days of being released.
The central subject is the ironically named Eric Love who is starred up, i.e. moves from a juvenile facility to an adult institution because of his extreme violence. Yet Eric, despite being given over to almost daily violence, does not want to get out or be transferred. His father Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), the only member of his family left and one on whom Eric depends for affection, has preceded Eric in the same jail having served fourteen years of his term. A reconciliation is Eric’s sole motive, and it looks as though his work is cut out for him.
There is no backstory. We must simply accept the concept that Eric needs to have a family. There are no flashbacks to his troubled life. Jonathan Asser’s script wants only to evoke in us a sense that life is cruel, people are brutal, officials are corrupt. And under David Mackenzie’s direction, that theme succeeds.
The only person who treats Eric like a human being who can be saved is his volunteer therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend), who is kidded for wanting to remain on the job of conducting group therapy without interference from outsiders, especially from Eric’s father who makes clear that he does not believe in psychoanalysis and believes that his kid is doomed. Eric commits so much mayhem for reasons that no person on the outside would indulge in, that we in the audience realize that being caged like a lab animal or a pig fattened for slaughter could easily cause this negative behavior. (Asser, the screenwriter, bases Olvier’s character on his own as Asser himself served as a prison therapist.)
Jack O’Connell, who in the film’s beginning looks like Joe College who is confused about where he is, is so charismatic in the principal role that we have to guess whether he wants his father dead or would prefer to reconcile with the man. In fact this is why a second viewing would be desired, but don’t assume that you’ll understand 60% of the dialogue the second time around.
The movie has been compared to Greek tragedy, given the universality of the archetypical father-son theme. There is little humor in the story, presumably because the inmates may believe the wisecracking is a sign of weakness and that bellicosity is the only way to survive.
Unrated. 106 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B