David Mackenzie’s best films share an unsettling sense of magical realism; a dream like quality where nothing is as it seems. Those dreams often prove to be troubling, as in The Last Great Wilderness, Young Adam, Hallam Foe and Perfect Sense, but never have they been more nightmarish than in his latest feature Starred Up, which was one of the highlights of this year’s Glasgow Film festival.
At first glance, it looks as is the film is going to unfold as a straightforward prison drama, although one which is more SCUM than Shawshank. As the opening scenes play out it doesn’t feel like a Mackenzie film, appearing uncommonly direct and ‘realistic’. But before you realise it you are in this peculiar, and (hopefully) unfamiliar world, which is lived mainly on three levels of the prison, like circles of hell, and where social rules, far from being forgotten, are more important than ever. It’s a matter of life and death.
The film opens with Jack O’Connell’s Eric entering prison, too young to be there, but too violent to stay in his Young Offenders unit that was previously his home. The cocksure walk, full of piss and vinegar, immediately reminds you of Ray Winstone’s in the aforementioned SCUM, and when O’Connell is on screen he is magnetic. Anyone who remembers him from Eden Lake will know he does terrifying effortlessly, but here he can barely contain his violence; it’s bursting from his every pore as he looks for any reason to erupt. His beating of an inmate who is going to lend him a lighter (but who Eric thinks is about to assault him) is brutal, and sets the tone for the violence which is never far away, with everyone, including the audience, on edge throughout.
O’Connell is in excellent company as Starred Up is a film that has no bad performances, and some astonishing ones. Rupert Friend’s middle-class psychologist Oliver is obviously struggling with issues himself, and some of the scenes between Eric and he are as insightful and honest as you could hope for in any drama, asking questions about why people choose to help others, and why those people may in turn never trust them fully. Suspicion is not only likely, it is unavoidable. Starred Up is not a film which simply shines a spotlight on how violent prison life can be, it gets to the heart of what it means to be institutionalised, and the reasons that some people are almost destined to end up there if no-one intervenes.
Others to mention are Peter Ferdinando’s manipulative top dog Spencer, perhaps the most chilling and psychotic screen presence of all. David Ajala, Anthony Welsh, Mark Asante and Ashley Chin make up the rest of Oliver’s self-help group; young men who he is coaching to cope with their anger and their surroundings. It is a rare of example in the film of an attempt to rehabilitate rather than simply punish.
Which brings me to Ben Mendelsohn. There is no more disturbing but watchable actor at the moment than Mendelsohn. If you haven’t seen his performances in Animal Kingdom and Killing Them Softly then you must, but here he plays Eric’s father, who is inside for life. Never has someone named Neville been so terrifying. To make everyone’s life easier, on both sides of the bars, he is charged with controlling his son, and makes as bad a job of it as you fear. He sees Eric’s burgeoning relationship with members of Oliver’s anger management group as threatening, feeling jealousy that they have a bond with his son that he has never managed, and the only thing he knows how to do is to lash out.
It’s a fantastic performance, and it shows Mackenzie’s skill as a director. The tender moments between Neville and his lover/cellmate are as unexpected as they are moving, giving Neville a humanity that he would otherwise lack and which makes the final scenes of the film believable. The film’s greatest triumph is that it deals with a situation and characters that could easily have been stereotyped and over familiar, but everyone, with the possible exception of some of the wardens, are three dimensional individuals who surprise you just when you believe you have seen it all before.
It is obvious that plenty of research has been done for this film. If you have ever wondered how to make a chib with just a toothbrush, a safety razor and a lighter, then you can learn how to do that in the first 10 minutes. The understanding between the wardens and the prisoners, a tense equilibrium which Eric’s volatile nature threatens to destroy, rings true, as does the uneasy relationships which are formed between inmates. The focus is not on crime, (that is rarely discussed) but punishment, and the results.
Starred Up is one of the best films of the year so far. For all it is uneasy to watch at times you can’t take your eyes off what is unfolding on screen, even those times where you may want to. With hindsight, it is clear that this is a David Mackenzie film. As he has before, he asks existential questions about nature and nurture, the concept of morality, and what it means to be yourself when you are being mentally and physically coerced to conform to social norms. The setting of a prison only serves to heighten these questions. If you have watched Mackenzie’s films before and not been fully convinced then Starred Up should leave you in no doubt that he is one of the most interesting and innovative directors around.
Starred Up is on general release in the UK from 21st March. Here is the trailer: