Starred Up Movie Review
Rising star Jack O'Connell delivers a ripping performance as a young convict with more baggage than you'd think humanly possible. And he's ably supported by Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend in career-best performances. So even if the film indulges in just about every prison-movie cliche imaginable, the focus on intensely realistic characters makes it stand out from other movies.
O'Connell plays Eric, who at 19 is so violent that he has been "starred up" from his young-offenders prison to the big house. The hitch is that he's now on the same wing as Neville (Mendelsohn), the father he's never known. Eric is such a brute that the harsh governor (Sam Spruell) wants to keep him in a hole, but concerned therapist Oliver (Friend) thinks he can help Eric channel his anger in more positive directions. On the other hand, by attending therapy sessions Eric is putting himself right in the middle of his father's rival prison gang.
The demands of the plot are obvious from the start, as the film makes it clear that prison is a hopeless place where violence rules. So while director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) lets the usual vicious nastiness swirl through each scene, he also tries to keep the focus on Eric's more internal struggle against his lifetime of abuse and abandonment. This is of course far more interesting than the prison-life plot, giving O'Connell a chance to deliver a strikingly involving turn as a young guy who's outwardly terrifying but also thoughtful and intelligent.
So it's frustrating that the script feels the need to provide a villain hellbent on even more grisly violence. This doesn't add anything to the movie, and actually distracts us from the remarkable acting from O'Connell, Mendelsohn, Friend and others. At least Mackenzie directs everything with a razor-sharp edge that makes it impossible to look away from the screen. We feel like we're trapped in this prison with everyone else. So even when the film falls into a series of hackneyed plot points it's utterly riveting.