Prison has been documented by filmmaker’s countless times, with the French film A Prophet as the genre’s most authentic and sharp character study, which follows the prison sentence of a young man who must study a code perhaps the way a blind man learns how to read—sensing the brail before he can comprehend it’s meaning— from a sloppy kill to discerning strategist.
In Starred Up directed by David Mackenzie, Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) who is nineteen and has just “starred up” from a juvenile facility, seems just fine with sloppy, a strategy would imply there is meaning to his confined life. In Mackenzie’s netherworld survival is the only impulse, particularly for Eric who like a wild bore attacks the moment he feels threatened. Eric doesn’t just slap a bitch, he nearly kills a fellow inmate when he graciously supplies Eric with a lighter. The guards want to leave him in solitary, but the prison therapist, Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) insists Eric try therapy first.
Dad (Ben Mendelson) is in prison too and sees therapy as his son’s only way out, while not understanding its actual purpose. At one point rushing in and yelling at his son when he wont engage. But Eric only knows violence and all the tricks, “so this is the point where you try to build trust,” have been done. While the plot flirts with redemption and the father and son bond, the strength of the film lies in its style and O’Connell’s performance, which developed out of workshops with former prisoners.
In prison films there is a nudge to want to create a light at the end of this dark existence, but sorry ma love there is no light, only a way to manage one’s behavior in order to survive the mental and physical chaos; although Eric isn’t interested in this. Some of his fellow inmates in group try to watch out for Eric, but he is too traumatized to accept this fully. He punches, slices and dices his way through trouble where the only real method seems to be explosive madness.
O’Connell’s performance had a lot of opportunities to wrap itself in clichés, this kind of tale has Dangerous Minds written all over it, made complete only with Coolio’s “So I gotta be down with the hood team . . . Too much television watching got me chasing dreams.” The film is able to escape this by O’Connell’s raw sting and the screenplays authenticity. The therapy works, but not really and Eric comes to terms with his emotions, but not really. As the prison’s spinning metal doors suggests, the mind doesn’t really go anywhere beyond back and forth.
The authenticity Mackenzie creates harkens back to my youth detention days as a group worker, suddenly all of the smells came back, the laundry room scent of lint and bleach mixed in with hamburger helper and rubber gloves (you know, for strip searches). Mackenzie is able to transport us to the netherworld; you can feel the mold in between the bathroom tiles underneath your feat and the damp air brushing up against your skin.
Starred Up was written by Jonathan Asser, who worked as a group facilitator. This was his story, with no frills as prison typically goes. One of the standout scenes occurs when Oliver comes between Eric and the guards, refusing to move unless the guards put down their weapons as Eric bites down on the guards balls. Perhaps there is another way besides beating the shit out of a prisoner?
Although the film touches on therapeutic interventions it does so in a non-preachy way. In most prison systems there is a tension between the therapeutic and punitive staff with each having their own philosophy of how to treat inmates. Mackenzie explores therapeutic approaches on a more anecdotal level, therapy takes time and a certain level of communication that the guards are not akin to. But Mackenzie has not set out to make a film about the broken prison system, only to share a story of a dynamic father and son relationship that could only make sense in the netherworld.
Both father and son have difficulty understanding their relationship because it does not exists on a conventional level. They exploit it with tirades and threats and don’t understand its power until the relationship is threatened. What you get from this film is what you decide to put in—prison and the people in it are either somewhere or nowhere and we all know which is the easiest to ignore.
Q&A with David Mackenzie at Lincoln Center in New York