LAFF 2014 Review: Starred Up

Starred Up

Starred Up is the Short Term 12 of violent prison dramas. There is a parallel to be made in delving into a volatile world to which we would otherwise not be exposed. I don’t mean to diminish Short Term 12 or hold Starred Up to unattainable standards, but that was my way in and I applaud the Los Angeles Film Festival for selecting this in their lineup.

Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) arrives at a prison where he immediately goes to work making weapons and antagonizing security guards and other prisoners. A prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) wants to put Eric in his group to try to rehabilitate his violent tendencies. Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is also in the same prison, where he is sort of the godfather in charge among the inmates.

The routine of maximum security prison life is compelling. From the hiding places Eric finds for his weapons to the hierarchy of inmates, there is a wealth of drama in simply learning how this all works. I suppose it shows that no matter how far you remove humans from society, society is inevitable. Someone like Neville will always rise to leadership and the citizens under him will always find a way to cope and make a life for themselves, even if it’s a life of violent rebellion.

The cinematography makes the prison a dynamic place by tracking through the levels and corridors in smooth shots. The overall aesthetic is handheld cinematography, probably dictated by the tight spaces in prison, and I have to say the camerawork all feels deliberate. The handheld nature of it is often imperceptible, and if you know how much I hate handheld camerawork, that’s a lot for me to say. The tracking from cell to cell, up and down stairs and down hallways is exquisite.

The violence is emotional and visceral. Eric is dangerous and creative in the way he sets up guards and other inmates. There is something electric about watching him explode, though of course what we want is for him to find a productive way to live his life, whether inside or out. The film has a wit about his violent acts too, sometimes a sense of, “Oh, here we go again” or “Nice try, guards.”

There are some mundane details that answer questions even Shawshank Redemption left open. We know that prisoners get contraband, but how? Well, you might not want to put one of those smuggled cell phones up to your face. Yeah, it goes there. It also made me wonder why there aren’t even more restrictions on violent inmates. If they can make a toothbrush into a weapon, can’t they forbid toothbrushes? Shouldn’t they forbid writing implements, even for Oliver, since they could be stolen and used as weapons? Certainly, why are they given razors to shave? Don’t we have the technology now to clean their teeth and shave their faces without providing them sharp objects? Even the wooden tables, can’t they switch to plastic?

There is a lot of thick slang that I can’t pretend I understood. You usually get the context, but some of it is really out there. It’s like Shakespeare. The performances are so passionate that you get what they’re saying.

Starred Up has already screened twice at the L.A. Film Festival, so it is one to watch for when it is ultimately released in the States. I believe it has been released in the U.K. already, and I will certainly want to speak with O’Connell, Mendohlson and director David Mackenzie when I get the chance. 

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.