‘Starred Up’ packs a punch

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Despite the flashy title, being “Starred Up” is anything but glitzy for main character Eric Love (Jack O’Connell, “Unbroken”). In this horrifyingly authentic prison drama, director David Mackenzie paints a tragic picture of a young life behind bars, all while keeping his audience as captive as his volatile protagonist.

Part thriller, part family drama, it’s a gripping film that’s sure to stay with you — provided you can stomach it.

Featuring strong accents and even stronger performances, the British film begins as 19-year-old Eric is “starred up,” a glorified term referring to a youth offender who is transferred to a hardcore adult prison. Going by this definition, Eric just might be the biggest star of them all: He quickly fashions himself a shiv made out of a melted toothbrush, gruesomely attacks a fellow inmate and even tries taking a hefty bite out of an unsuspecting guard’s testicles. From the outset, it’s clear that this guy is a ticking time bomb, but it’s also clear that the prison system needs some serious reform as well. Some of the more venal guards make Eric look like a benign prankster.

Yet there is still the distinct feeling that Eric was born into this world institutionalized, a notion that echoes greater themes of the film. In “Starred Up,” the disorienting clicks of a prison guard’s boots and the clanging of metal bars become a soundtrack for a subculture of wasted youth.

The few who are immune to Eric’s repeated attempts at violent provocation appear to be the incompetent but well-meaning prison counselor, Oliver (Rupert Friend, “Pride & Prejudice), and Eric’s father, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn, “The Dark Knight Rises”), a longtime inmate of whom Eric is understandably resentful. For the Loves — an ironic surname if there ever was one — paternal lectures occur in the Big House rather than a family home, and this dysfunctional father-son relationship is central to uncovering Eric’s deep-seated issues. Yet, as his counselor soon learns, merely identifying the problem does little to solve it.

“It’s a fucking group, not a class,” Eric remarks when confronted with his refusal to learn the therapeutic steps laid out by Oliver. Despite some good smart-assery, even the few amusing scenes are intentionally marred by Eric’s uncontrollable rage and vexing surroundings.

As part of a prolific genre of prison-based dramas, “Starred Up” could easily have traveled the cliched route toward becoming an R-rated after-school special, blindly trying to send a message at the expense of its integrity. This movie is different, and there’s a good chance it will be added to the canon of films that manage to come out of this saturated genre with both critical and popular acclaim. But make no mistake, this is not “The Shawshank Redemption,” and it is not HBO’s “Oz.” In its own right, “Starred Up” is an insightful character piece focusing on the systematic failure within prison systems. It may sound familiar, but there is nothing generic about this film. It’s new, fresh, gritty and full of knock-out (literally) performances.

Mendelsohn’s Neville is disturbingly well done. It’s as if we’re looking at Eric-of-the-future, a disturbing reality not lost on the audience or Neville’s delinquent son. Likewise, O’Connell dives headfirst into Eric’s troubled psyche. His forlorn glares and defensive body language add a bottomless well of vulnerability to a character whose few spoken words usually involve “fuck” and “cunt,” often hurled in conjunction with his bloody fists.

Ironically, a film that speaks volumes about generational cycles of incarceration centers upon a character who, for the most part, is incapable of articulating the experience. In “Starred Up,” dialogue deliberately plays second fiddle to shocking visuals that relay deeper symbolic meaning. The revolving doors at the prison’s exit and cohesive gray color palette convey more to the audience than dialogue could ever hope to, and it’s a better film for it.

Written by former prison counselor Jonathan Asser and set on location in a real Belfast, Ireland, prison, this film is hauntingly authentic.

“Starred Up” opens Friday at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Contact Gillian Edevane at [email protected].