The term "starred up" may sound like a good thing, and perhaps in the backwards "balls before brains" ethics of hardcore prison inmates it is. When a juvenile convict is deemed too dangerous to co-exist with his peers and thus is sent to an adult facility with the murderers, lifers with nothing to lose, then that is what it means to be "starred up", and in David MacKenzie's ferocious prison drama it is to be worn as a badge of twisted honor. But it's also fitting in a way, as Starred Up also marks star Jack O'Connell's breakthrough into superstardom with a performance so visceral it challenges Tom Hardy's Bronson for sheer aggression.
When we first meet 19-year-old Eric Love (O'Connell) he's in a dark, grimy holding room undergoing what would be a humiliating cavity search for anybody else. But Eric doesn't seem to care; he's tightly wound and spring-coiled for action, as if waiting for the moment to strike. Within moments we figure out why he was "starred up" to begin with. His first act after being sent to his cell is to fashion a makeshift shank like MacGyver and brutally assault an innocent inmate, presumably to establish his "don't f**k with me" cred. The result is a showdown with prison guards that leaves both sides bloody, and Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell) thinking maybe Eric is too dangerous even to live. Certainly he's too far gone to be rehabilitated, but that doesn't stop therapy group leader Oliver (Rupert Friend) from trying to teach Eric a new way to live, one that doesn't involve violence.
But violence is all he knows, a learned behavior from his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who happens to be a well-respected inmate in the same prison. Their reunion isn't all flowers and sunshine, either. Neville resents Eric's therapy sessions where he (mostly) kicks it peacefully with fellow inmates and learns from Oliver how to tone down his rage. Meanwhile, Neville's awkward attempts to be a father only drive the wedge further between them, leading to angry outbursts that only hold back Eric's progress. It's a tricky road Eric is on, anyway, and MacKenzie pulls no punches in depicting every brutal step of it. If you've seen an episode of HBO's Oz then the complicated prison dynamics will be familiar. There are different factions in every cell block; old grudges must be remembered and respected; new friends taken with caution. It's an extreme change of pace for MacKenzie, who directed the lousy Ashton Kutcher drama, Spread, and the gritty authenticity he brings to Starred Up is impressive. The film was shot in one of Ireland's old maximum security prisons and every nook captures what a total hellhole it is, one where hope is a fleeting thing. At times it's so bleak and depressing it's like you're watching one of those Lock Up docs on television.
Starred Up is about more than just prison riots and stints in solitary confinement, it's also a harsh critique on a prison system that merely houses criminals rather than tries to reform them. And when that fails quietly does away with them. It's a look at the cycle of violence and how that legacy is passed down from one generation to the next. And through it all is O'Connell's steely, unforgettable performance. Off the charts intense but showing an emotional nimbleness beyond his experience, O'Connell shows us why Angelina Jolie chose him to star in her WWII drama, Unbroken. Like Hardy in Bronson and Michael Fassbender in Shame, O'Connell is impossible to take your eyes off of even for a moment.