The beginning of David Mackenzie's U.K. prison drama, Starred Up, might make you wonder if you'll survive to the end: We see a kid with a hard-eyed, shutdown face being matriculated at a new jail — apparently, he's outgrown his old one, and so he's been "starred up," or prematurely transferred from a juvenile facility to an adult one. Nineteen-year-old Eric (Jack O'Connell) defies the guards from the first moment — his glower is almost a kind of shiv by itself. Within moments of being shoved into his new cell, he expertly fashions a weapon out of a toothbrush and a razor blade. His face, meanwhile, is a wall of nothing. How will we ever feel anything for this kid when it's almost impossible to look at him?
But a small miracle happens in Starred Up, the sort of thing that comes together when filmmakers and actors know what they're doing. Eric never has the full-redemption epiphany, the thing you always expect to get from prison dramas — Starred Up doesn't hand anything to us that easily. This is an unsparing picture, one whose violence, though deftly handled, is bone-crunchingly rough. Yet its emotional contours are surprisingly delicate, thanks in large part to O'Connell's performance. Before long, you have a stake in Eric's life, perhaps more so than he does himself.
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Eric isn't being transferred to just any old prison: This is the one where his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn in a taut, finely calibrated performance), has also been incarcerated for God-knows-how-long. Neville, a wiry scrapper whose skin is dotted with ill-advised tattoos — the kind that mark a person who knows he'll never need to bother with the outside world — steps forward, roughly, to show Eric the ropes. But Eric can't be sure of his father's motives or whether this association will help or hinder him as he navigates the prison hierarchy. He's even more distrustful of Oliver (Rupert Friend), the almost unnervingly composed counselor who urges prison administrators to allow Eric to attend the anger-management sessions he oversees. "I can reach him," he pleads. The prison honchos (Sam Spruell and Sian Breckin) give their permission, with a shrug. They have more invested in keeping Eric angry and violent: His irredeemability justifies their jobs and maybe even their existence.
Getting Eric to attend the sessions seems hopeless anyway. He's too angry to be corralled: At one point, while handcuffed, he corners a guard and somehow — you barely see how it happens — sinks his jaws into the poor guy's crotch, holding him hostage until Oliver, who happens to witness the scene, can talk him down. In another sequence, Eric startles out of bed when a fellow inmate innocently steps into his cell, offering the use of a lighter he'd asked for earlier. Without knowing what he's doing, he knocks the guy out, but he's instantly remorseful when he sees what he's done, the first glimpse of any sort of conscience, or even human feeling, that he shows.
O'Connell — who also stars in Yann Demange's upcoming Belfast-set drama, '71, which earned sturdy praise when it premiered at Cannes last May — shows us more of that vulnerability as the story moves forward, but he releases it only drop by drop, like a morphine drip. He never does anything so obvious as smile, but fragments of light gradually show in his eyes. He's wonderful in the scenes with his fellow counseling attendees: Their raunchy conversations turn fiercely emotional whenever the subject turns, even glancingly, toward any of the inmates' mothers. When Eric steps into one of these heated conversations to keep the peace, he shows faint glimmers of leadership. For the first time, you wonder what this kid might be capable of if he weren't stuck in the prison system.
Mackenzie, an astute, sensitive director, has made a number of pictures that haven't gotten their due, particularly the quietly captivating 2011 sci-fi romance Perfect Sense, in which Ewan McGregor and Eva Green play a chef and a scientist, respectively, who fall in love just as the Earth is swept by an epidemic that erodes sensory perception. Starred Up — which was written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, who himself has a background working as a therapist in the prison system — has been made with precision and restraint. As harrowing as some of the depicted incidents are — this is prison, after all — Mackenzie resists sensationalism, preferring to keep his sights on the human element. By the end, he's worked a kind of alchemy. Early on, the prison administrators don't seem like such horrible people: They have the faces of regular folks, just going about their admittedly challenging jobs. But once we've gotten to know them, it becomes harder and harder to look at their faces — their phony rectitude registers as a grim mask, and their true ugliness radiates from deep within. By that point, Eric's face and those of his fellow inmates have come to seem beautiful in the roughest, most soulful way. There's no easy redemption in Starred Up, except maybe our own: Somehow, a pissed-off, messed-up kid wins us over.