By the time 19-year-old Eric Love arrives in an adult prison, he’s already been schooled in brutality. Eric, the main figure in the hard-as-nails British movie Starred Up, has an explosive temper that leads him to acts of extreme violence. He’s a young man who has had to spend most of his short life defending himself — often in the most violent possible ways.
The term “starred up,” by the way, refers to being sent to a maximum security prison at a tender age. That’s a bit of British slang in a movie with accents so thick, you may find yourself wishing for subtitles. No matter. You’ll get the gist.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
At first impassive, Eric — brilliantly played by Jack O’Connell in a shockingly physical performance — quickly lets us know that he’s defiant and uncontrollable. Eric also understands the dangerous environment into which he has been thrust. As soon as he reaches his cell, he makes a weapon out of his prison-issued toothbrush and razor.
We’re not sure what landed Eric in jail, but whatever it was couldn’t have been worth it. The prison is full of tough men and corrupted officials. Only a lone therapist (Rupert Friend) makes any attempt at rehabilitating lost souls. Friend’s character believes that some prisoners can change and that Eric is young enough to be one of them.
Once director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Jonathan Asser establish the prison environment, they begin telling a story in which another prisoner tries to control Eric. He happens to be Eric’s real father (Ben Mendelsohn), a man who’s apparently serving a life sentence. Mendelsohn’s Neville Love had little to do with raising his son, who grew up in institutional settings where he was abused.
Mendelsohn, who first came to international attention in the Australian film Animal Kingdom, displays the simmering frustration of a father who wants to protect his son, but who hardly knows the kid whose violent outbursts make you shudder.
In one of his super-tantrums, Eric bites into the crotch of a prison guard, and refuses to let go.
Two men seem to rule the prison. An indifferent warden (Sam Spruell) and a top con (Peter Ferinando). Together, they conspire to keep the lid on, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.
We’re thrown into this raging stew along with Eric, who gradually becomes the center of what might be described as the world’s toughest coming-of-age story.
There’s no sentiment in this hard-boiled world. But the more we see of this grim prison, the more we realize Mackenzie wants to pose fundamental questions about whether a man’s humanity totally can be destroyed.
Starred Up tends to make us feel as caged as its prisoners: Put another way: I’ve seldom been so glad to see a gripping, admirable movie come to an end.