Never really one to get excited over prison dramas— my interest in seeing Starred Up was practically accidental.
I was watching This is England, wishing I had the rep and the face-shape to pull-off what would be an eponymous haircut, had I the guts— when I thought to myself… Pukey looks familiar. I took it to Google, and realized it was because I had seen him in the trailer for Starred Up, which is a very persuasive trailer indeed.
The two pull-quotes at the top of the theatrical poster kind of say it all; Starred Up is so good. There’s something special about the way all aspects of the movie come together— what little dialogue that was probably written in the original screenplay is obviously not strictly followed, and the hand-held shooting style feels like documenting more than directing.
Much of the story-telling is shouldered here by the nuanced performance of its lead, played by Jack O’Connell, who masterfully sells all the various facets of Eric Love, this seemingly irredeemable, murderously violent anti-hero, with a boyish earnestness.
While it’s clear that Eric is accustomed to the prison system, and that the startling violence he almost immediately demonstrates is probably what had him “starred up,” and transferred into the higher security adult prison also containing his estranged father, there’s an underlying naiveté written into his character that brings a specific and crucial vulnerability to light.
In a scene after he accidentally knocks another inmate unconscious, Eric firstly believes he can convince the wardens of this misunderstanding (obviously, he does not), and as those wardens force their way to his cell to take him away to solitary confinement, he blockades himself in covering the floor and himself in baby oil, armed with two legs he’s broken off his wooden desk and the metal antenna off his radio. While he puts up a good fight, his logic is clearly flawed— maybe compromised due to the rage issues he later confronts— as there is nothing to achieve here. With no chance of escape, this behavior only antagonizes the system in which he is now part of, and demonstrates that despite the severity of his criminal past and his almost-adult age, Eric is just a kid.
The barrenness of this environment is also transferred into its sounds, and from what I can remember, Starred Up is void of any music whatsoever, diegetic or non, and the events that unfold are intensified and sharpened by this absence. In contrast to that though, there is a softness to the physical landscape— rooms are washed in dulled yellows and brown, pale blues and deep green, the men all wear heather crew neck sweatshirts and quiet tennis shoes, and the rooms of the vetted inmates might even pass for micro studios over prison cells. Together these elements prevent the stark arena from feeling completely desolate of humanness, and also match Eric’s disposition and the broken father-son relationship at stake here pretty perfectly.
Adding to this softness, somehow Starred Up manages to have even humor within its walls. In a universe where prison-rape lurks with potential at nearly any given moment, this movie pulls off a dick-joke that doesn’t approach the subject in the least, and also a violent shower scene that impressively steers rightly clear of it a second time. That is not to say that the subject is ignored completely— there is a sexual tension that exists in the way the film alludes to nudity, the forced relationships built as a result of imprisonment, the one discussion the men have about the conquests they might attempt once released, and the single and only explicit outburst from Eric’s father near the end— but these are instead gradually incorporated, and in subtle ways that feel refreshing for a film of this genre.
Director David Mackenzie, responsible for the interestingly-premised but poorly-executed Perfect Sense, and also the poorly-premised and poorly-executed Spread, kind of seems like a wild card at this point, but this has me curious at least about what his next project will be.
Jack O’Connell is starring in the Angelina Jolie-directed opus Unbroken which I’m not especially excited for, but I’ll probably watch it, and it’ll be interesting to see how he transitions from the lead in an independent British film to what will probably be a rather successful Christmas Hollywood blockbuster.
Arbitrary list! 6 projects I am excited about, some of which have already been released and some of which have not — and why:
Mood Indigo — saccharine surreal adventure featuring Audrey Tautou, why not.
FRANK — Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson, so basically, gingers. [update: I watched this and liked it for a lot of the same reasons I love Lars and the Real Girl, though I like Lars and the Real Girl more. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the music in Frank actually is, unpleasantly surprised by the SXSW thread of the narrative and most of the last act.]
20,000 Days on Earth — A purported regular ol’ day-in-the-life-of the far-beyond-regular Nick Cave.
Young Ones — I dig westerns, I dig Michael Shannon, I dig Nicholas Hoult.
Interstellar — super-fan of space, pseudo-fan of Christopher Nolan.
Inherent Vice — super-fan of Thomas Pynchon, super-fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin.
It is not my birthday.
Perhaps this is the reason I’m wearing my good clothes, my night clothes, any clothes.
Someone is supposed to be meeting us here.
Another there, then another, and soon we are five at a table for four
confusing two waiters who are
forgetting our food orders,
and sexily serving up vanilla-sauced soufflé.
I hear pillow talk at the table next door.
As everyone digs and scrapes at mounds of meat and soft cheese,
I listen to the clinking of silverware,
and to the overdubbed mouth of the woman seated diagonal to me.
Infinitely musical, and simultaneously subliminal.
I tell the lady she isn’t speaking loudly enough,
that the expression on her companion’s face is one of puzzlement and not insight,
But the crowd doesn’t abate,
and she, of course, can’t hear me.
I wonder where we’d be if it were my birthday,
but only for a moment before I remember I’m in the presence of others.
Two, in fact,
and none are merrier alone or apart.
It’s always crowded in Los Angeles; isn’t that the way—
Drivers complain of terror twilight from the windows of their shiny sedans as we
stand in line to place our names at the end of a list before
standing in line for a consolation prize.
But care not; the line for the line for the bar looks beautiful,
snaking into a shape that stretches
far longer than the diagonal that connects its head and moving tail.
I’m already tired as we make faithless donations to this city’s talent,
actors (*aspring), model
We make for the door,
and someone asks me why I’m so sleepy.
I kill the part of myself that longs to explain that I tire of company more than I become incapable of keeping my eyes open or my conscious aware,
and shut that oaken door.
Who will ever know if they are able to understand me
above the din and murmur of nighttime.
A neon sign ushers us from marble to pavement,
and its cheery hum backlights and blurs the view of a dying tree.
Bowing my head outside the reach of those light rays,
I can see its leaves are fallen and scattered,
mixed with cigarette butts—
rosy shades of apple that no Boy knew to catch, or eat, or sell.
My lips move to an unsynched symphony of static,
a deafening cocktail of car honks and cab heckles.
So maybe I consider forgiving my inquisitor,
outside the doorway to a dimly-lit golden light box,
for not being able to hear.