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Starred Up: The Grey Mile

September 11, 2014

Starred Up Movie Poster

What I like about Starred Up is that it never feels inauthentic. It was written by an ex-prison therapist and filmed over 24 days in an old prison. It isn’t glorified tough guy crap that oozes style over substance. Starred Up isn’t trying to create anti-heroes and treacherous villains. It is told in the grey where you understand the violence and family dynamics.

Starred Up Ben

The movie hits hard and often yet doesn’t pander to melodrama or overt clichés. Jack O’Connell’s character Eric is wiry enough to be a threat and his synapses are obviously sparking behind his eyes. He often knows better yet is constantly let down by a quick temper and lack of guidance. It doesn’t help that he is the product of an angry father and foster homes. He never had a chance in the real world and prison is probably the best place for him.

The term Starred Up refers to the early transfer of a teenager to an adult prison. The young offender has proven to be too violent for juvenile detention so he gets shipped off to prison. This leads to a different hierarchy and need for an attitude adjustment. O’Connell’s violent outbursts lead to lock downs which are bad for the prison drug business. His constant troubles introduce him to two mentors. One is his incarcerated father whose attempts at parenting lead to more violence. The other mentor is the prison therapist Oliver. Oliver is a volunteer who leads a therapy group for the most violent of offenders. Both men try to do their best yet are constantly let down by themselves and others.

starred up friend

Ben Mendelsohn is wonderful as Eric’s father Neville. He pulls off a believable balance of menace and clueless. He is used to doling out threats and doesn’t know how to deal with a 19-year-old punk calling him out in front of other inmates. His attempts at parenting lead to embarrassing his son which leads to more violence. The amazing thing is that you actually believe Neville as a person. You understand the guy and why he does what he does. After killing Them Softly, Place Beyond the Pines and Animal Kingdom Mendelsohn has proven himself to be a seriously layered threat. Mendelsohn has given us four iconic criminals who are nothing alike and frighten in different ways.

Much of Starred Up takes place in the therapy sessions lead by Rupert Friend’s character Oliver. His sessions are like walking a tight rope during a hurricane. One wrong look, word or mother joke can lead to eruptions of violence that would erase any goodwill created. The first time Oliver meets Eric is during a fight that bursts into the session. Eric ends up biting a prison guard’s penis and Oliver de-escalates the situation by putting himself in warms way. The therapy is rough going at first but there are some remarkable moments that seem small but have deep personal resonance.

Starred Up is a tough and rewarding film. The realism is a breath of fresh air that makes the violence and nudity feel necessary as opposed to gratuitous. The characters are three-dimensional wonders who feel relatable in the foreign prison world. Director David MacKenzie and crew should be very proud of themselves.

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2014 2:55 pm

    This movie is brutal. But in an awesome way. Still though, it has a heart that works and actually keeps you interested in these characters, rather than the predicament they are thrown into. Good review.

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