I think that David Mackenzie’s prison drama (Hell or High Water) was also the first film in which I noticed the then young English acting hopeful Jack O’Connell. The very next year, young Jack appeared in the equally good Northern Irish war thriller “71”, in the same year he had the main role in Angelina Jolie’s biographical drama “Unbroken”, but in the meantime he got a little lost. When I saw him in “Starred Up” I was convinced that he was going to be the next big British star, which has not happened yet, but as the angry, violent 19-year-old Eric who has just been transferred from juvenile to a “real” prison, he is brilliant.
In the same prison, his father Neville (the equally excellent Australian Ben Mendelsohn), who is the right-hand man of the head of the prison’s criminal organization, Dennis Spencer (Peter Ferdinando), is serving a life sentence. Right from the opening scene, it’s clear to us how angry and violent a guy Eric is, a young man completely out of control because the first thing he does when he arrives in the cell is a weapon made of razor blades and toothbrushes. We can see why, because immediately he gets into trouble, provoking the guards who can’t wait to “school” a young hothead like him. Eric will be saved from serious beatings and solitary confinement by therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend), who will convince the warden (Sam Spruell) to give the young man another chance.
Even his father, a guy who is clearly a cold-blooded killer with a rich criminal past, tries to talk Eric to his senses and explain to him that such behavior will get him into serious trouble in prison, but it won’t be easy. Although at first it may seem that “Starred Up” is one of those typical generic prison dramas that we have really seen in recent years, the great characters and the brilliantly built relationships between them elevate this film above the average. Wisely, Mackenzie lets young O’Connell build his character primarily through body language, looks that kill, rather than through conversation because he’s not much of a loquacious type. A good ten minutes of the film will pass before Eric mumbles his first sentence, but by then it will be clear to us who he really is.
An emotionally damaged kid who learned from an early age that all problems are solved with fists and violence and who knows nothing else and better. He’s never had a real father figure in his life because his father has been in prison for as long as he can remember, and Neville obviously didn’t care too much about what would happen to his son, until the young man ended up in the same place as him. Only then will Neville realize that he is to blame for his son’s fate and emotional state, but the question is whether this hardened guy can change or is it too late for his fatherly instincts to work in him. And especially in such a place as a prison full of thugs and savages who, like sharks, are just waiting to feel the blood and weakness of one of the other prisoners.