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Tribeca Film Festival // Unrated // August 29, 2014
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
The prison drama has made its way across many mediums, including film and television. There are several different directions that a filmmaker can take the genre in, although they usually seek to be intense, brutal, and captivating. Films such as Bronson caused many audiences to feel uncomfortable, but they aren't all able to capture the sense of emotion and power that others are able to deliver. Surprisingly, writer Jonathan Asser's debut manages to gives us our fix of intense violence with an emotionally effective center in Starred Up. While the film has already been released elsewhere, Tribeca Film is finally giving American audiences the chance to see how director David Mackenzie has interpreted this powerful story for the big screen.
Eric (Jack O'Connell) is a troubled and explosively violent teenager. As a young adult, he's forced to transfer to an adult prison where the atmosphere is entirely different. Being the youngest individual there, he's bound to be a target, especially as he begins to stir the pot with both the guards, as well as other prisoners. Eric finally meets his match within a fellow inmate, named Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). However, this man also happens to be his father.
Starred Up begins with a slow build that we know will eventually erupt. Eric is guided through the usual procedure when one enters the prison. He follows every instruction that he's given, which we soon learn is a rarity for the young adult. As soon as he arrives within his cell, he replaces the bristles of his toothbrush with a razor blade. He does nearly everything that he can do in order to prove his dominance over those around him. His outbursts are unpredictable, making him a force to be reckoned with. It's truly intriguing to see prison from the perspective of an inmate who refuses to be a follower. While we continue to learn more about Eric as the film continues, very little of it is spoon fed. A large amount of his depth is hidden within his dialogue and actions. He might be insanely violent and reckless, but he has a softer center that has been enclosed by a brutal exterior due to traumas that he refuses to face. He quickly becomes a character that we truly sympathize with.
Even though the film entirely relies on the interactions had within the prison, Asser's screenplay has a surprisingly small amount of dialogue. He isn't one to instantly warm up to his father, as he begins attending group meetings with counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend) in order to get some emotional aid. While it might not seem like it from the surface, Starred Up is largely about an incredibly strained father-son relationship that must be faced within the confines of prison. Asser doesn't waste any time with the stereotypes that one would expect, as he explores true intentions and feelings. Both Eric and Neville are at the breaking point, as they're forced to confront their demons head on. Eric believes that he's stronger without his father around, but nothing seems to stop Neville from his desire to protect his son at all costs. This makes for a truly intriguing dynamic that continues to intensify, as Eric continues to stir the pot within the prison.
This father-son relationship is ultimately what builds to a climax that proves to be the most disappointing element of the picture. Asser's third act moves into the very predictable territory that the remainder of the picture spent avoiding. We're given a climax that proves to be inconsistent with the tone found throughout the running time. Given that, the final few moments of the picture truly resonate in an effective way, making up for the climax's major problem. As the credits begin to roll, I found myself craving to see more. What will happen next? The complexities within Eric and Neville's past are enough to easily carry this film for another thirty minutes. Yet, it's somehow more powerful left in the way that it is.
Starred Up boasts quite the cast, as each performance proves to be quite impressive. Jack O'Connell is brilliant as Eric. Even without having to deliver a word of dialogue, he intensifies each scene through small elements, such as body language. O'Connell isn't simply playing the character, as he becomes Eric. Ben Mendelsohn is another excellent casting decision in the role of Neville. He's entirely captivating on screen. Yet, O'Connell and Mendelsohn deliver a jaw-droppingly powerful representation of this father-son relationship that keeps us entirely invested in the picture's developments. These two performances are simply elevated by Rupert Friend's representation of Oliver. One of the primary reasons why Starred Up works so well, is because of this incredibly talented trio of actors.
Director David Mackenzie has successfully brought this prison drama to the big screen. There is a strong sense of visual storytelling involved, as a large amount of character and tone are brought about through Mackenzie's direction. Starred Up is presented through a gritty filter that never holds back. He delivers the claustrophobic atmosphere to perfection, as it feels as if we're stuck within the very same walls that our characters are. This film maintains an uncomfortable atmosphere that truly creates the mood that is to escalate within the film's running time.
While the climax may be unfitting, the remainder of Starred Up is most certainly successful. There are few prison films that match the emotional and physical intensity found here. Boasting an incredibly smooth sense of pacing, director David Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Asser have crafted an instant classic that puts other prison films, such as Bronson, to shame. Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn are remarkable in what has proven to be one of the top must-see films of 2014. Starred Up is brutal, unrelenting, and captivating. Highly recommended!
Starred Up will be in theaters on August 29th and VOD on August 26th.