The words “violent,” “gritty” and “prison drama” give me pause when used in the same sentence. Starred Up (★★★) is set for limited theatrical screenings this month, and it is already available on select VOD platforms. Early critical reception from the film festival circuit (Telluride last year, Tribeca earlier in 2014) have been consistently positive, but getting a festival jury to laud your film and getting the average movie watcher to stream it on a Friday night are two different things, aren’t they?
Despite the hard sell of its subject matter, Starred Up has two things to recommend it to more casual viewers. The film’s star, Jack O’Connell, is set to appear in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken later this year. That film is getting a big studio push, and O’Connell appears just on the verge of breaking out as an even bigger star. The first hour of the film is filled with conventional prison-drama situations designed to give us an idea of the indignities and dangers of prison life. Most of this material should be familiar if we’ve seen Hunger or In The Name of the Father. (The only reason I don’t add Oz to that list is because I haven’t seen HBO’s prison drama.) There are strip searches, threats of gang violence, and carefully observed explanations of how inmates make (and hide) weapons. O’Connell’s performance gives his character, the ironically named Eric Love, all the anger you would expect but also just a touch of exasperation at the absurdity of it all. For the film to work, the audience has to believe that Eric is capable of surviving in prison, but we also have to see what the psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) sees: the tiniest glimmer of unextinguished humanity.
The psychotherapist is the second reason the film might seem a little different from other prison dramas. The film takes a turn in the second half as Eric enrolls in a prison program designed to help inmates with–wait for it–anger management. The ironies and difficulties of such a program are not lost on its participants. The brutal and often corrupt environment produces violent behavior since it is viewed as the only means of survival. The impulse control that one would need to demonstrate for parole or better treatment makes one vulnerable in the world one has to survive on a daily level. The social critique here is not new, but the Catch-22 of prison life is no less bitter. Are prisons supposed to rehabilitate or merely punish? Is it possible to create an institution that does both?
I was less enthusiastic about This Is Martin Bonner than most of my colleagues. Starred Up is, perhaps, that film’s darker mirror. Both films hint at the transformative nature of the prison experience and wrestle with the questions of whether or not the conditioning wrought by sustained exposure to harsh environments can be undone. Starred Up is a thoughtful, artful film, but it is…well…a violent and gritty prison drama. Which means it may not be for everyone.