Review: Starred Up (TIFF 2013)
PLOT: Nineteen-year-old Eric (Jack O'Connell) is transferred to a maximum security prison, ruled by a fierce gang run by lifer Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who also happens to be the boy's father. Having not seen each other since Eric was a child, the two are forced into a confrontation when the hot-tempered Eric keeps making trouble, leading to problems with the prison authorities.
REVIEW: STARRED UP was a movie that kind of hit me out-of-the-blue at TIFF. It wasn't something I was planning on catching, despite having earlier admired one of the director David Mackenzie's movies, YOUNG ADAM. It just wasn't high on my list of priorities, with it pitted against so many high-profile, soon-to-be-blockbusters. But, a hole in my schedule led to my catching it one afternoon, and boy am I glad that I did.
Turns out, STARRED UP was a tough little sleeper that marks the arrival of one of the most intriguing new actors since Tom Hardy exploded onto the screen in BRONSON. O'Connell is mostly known in the UK for his role on the TV show SKINS, but his part here as Eric is a star-making role of the highest order. Far from being a lamb among the wolves, young Eric is hard as nails. One early scene perfectly illustrates this as he beats a fellow inmate, and then defends himself against the guards by coating himself in baby oil (making him tough to hold on to) and brandishing the wooden legs of a desk. When all else fails, he wraps his jaw around a guard's crotch, threatening to make him a eunuch if they don't back off.
Suffice to say, O'Connell as Eric is one tough S.O.B. He's so good that by the end of the fest, he was being talked about as a sure-fire future star, which will no doubt be helped along by his casting in the lead role in Angelina Jolie's new movie, UNBROKEN. O'Connell is brilliant, managing to give Eric a kind of Bronson-like intensity, although they keep him sympathetic in that it's clear that his rage is a by-product of a vicious upbringing. There's a chilling scene where he tells the prison counselor (Rupert Friend) about an early experience with a pedophile, that ended with him throwing acid in the assailant's face.
As his incarcerated dad, Ben Mendelsohn manages to hold his own opposite O'Connell's almost Brando-like performance. As a lifer, Mendelsohn speaks with an almost impenetrable accent, and obviously relishes his position as the prison kingpin. AT the same time, he can't help but try to be a good dad to his son, even though they're at odds about everything, especially Mendelsohn having himself a prison "wife" (as he says, "it's prison- innit?"). Mendelsohn's been getting a lot of great roles lately, and this is maybe the best one he's had since THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES.
I know that a UK prison pic can be a tough sell, but I can say that even if art-house fare isn't really your thing, STARRED UP is a must-see. It's like a UK version of A PROPHET, and it's jam-packed with brutal action, and a surprisingly emotional and exciting conclusion that absolutely blew me away. Pretty much every other critic that I spoke to at the fest said the same thing; that STARRED UP was a totally unexpected pleasure, and that O'Connell was brilliant, and had the makings of a huge tough-guy star. STARRED UP marks his arrival, and he's a guy we'll no doubt be hearing a whole lot about in the coming months.