Starred Up—David Mackenzie’s brutal, but profoundly humane, drama about life in a British prison—has been met with broad acclaim in the U.K., earning the Scottish director the best reviews of his career. If one had to guess why critics and audiences have responded to this movie, while Mackenzie’s earlier films—which have similarly dealt with difficult interpersonal relationships and discomfiting power dynamics—were indifferently received, the answer probably lies in its subject matter. Mackenzie’s previous films have either dealt with sex in an explicit and unflattering way or have been focused on woozy, corny romances. Neither mode tends to be very popular, with the former too off-putting for most tastes, and the latter too unabashedly lovey-dovey. But the truth is that ascribing Starred Up’s success to “palatability” would be a disservice to the movie, which, in many ways, is both more radically unsentimental and more idealistic than Mackenzie’s earlier work.
Based on a script by former prison therapist Jonathan Asser, Starred Up centers on Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), an extremely violent juvenile offender who has been transferred into the adult prison where his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is serving a life sentence. In essence, it’s a family drama, enacted by two men who have no idea how to interact with ordinary people, let alone each other, and complicated by the intricate social dynamics and hierarchies of prison life.
The widescreen camerawork by Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone) envisions prison life as composed of scrunched, cramped horizontals, with prisoners and guards weaving in and out of a gridwork of metal bars and wire meshes. The immersive opening sequence, which depicts Eric’s arrival at the prison with the chilly, detail-oriented precision of a Jean-Pierre Melville heist sequence, creates a sense of place and a set of spatial rules, which the characters will spend the rest of movie alternately following and violating. What the movie excels at, among other things, is putting the viewer into the prison life mindset, laying dramatic groundwork that allows the audience to intuit when an unspoken rule—like crossing the prison’s strict racial boundaries—has been broken.
Starred Up is, unambiguously, a movie about the emotional lives of career prisoners. It’s about people trying to have normal interactions—sharing, reconciling with family members, responding to an insult—in an environment that precludes them. Traditionally, prison movies have focused on the mechanical, dehumanizing aspect of incarceration—the way it turns people into numbers and reduces live to a series of enclosed spaces and routines. What makes Starred Up exceptional, as both an unpredictable drama and a sneaky issue movie, is the empathy it has for all of its incarcerated characters.
These aren’t innocent men placed in cruel circumstances they didn’t deserve; these are people who can barely interact with each other. The answer Starred Up offers—embodied by troubled volunteer therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend), a stand-in for screenwriter Asser—is treatment. It’s not an easy answer; it’s time-consuming and sometimes ineffective, and frankly, it’s easier to just lock people up and forget about them. It’s a credit to both Mackenzie’s talent as a director of actors and to the underlying humaneness of his vision that he argues that the right option is the more difficult and less predictable one—and that he does so without relying on sentimentality, unearned sympathy, or a happy ending.