Take a Drink: every time Jack O’Connell is incredibly resourceful
Take a Drink: whenever he shows his fighting instincts
Take a Drink: for exercise
Take a Drink: for class
Take a Drink: for sex conversations
Do a Shot: for ambushes
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
The crowning of the next big thing is a frequent and risk-fraught occurrence (Sam Worthington, anyone?) but I’m gonna go ahead and say it anyway… Jack O’Connell is the next big thing. It helps that I’m not the only one to think so- besides overwhelming critical praise for Starred Up and the soon to be released 71, McConnell will star in Angelina Jolie’s hotly-tipped Oscar hopeful Unbroken.
That’s right, Angelina Jolie might be Maleficent and an Oscar-nominated director in the same year.
In Starred Up he plays a juvenile delinquent who’s just “starred up” to adult prison, the same one where his absentee father (Ben Mendelsohn) happens to be incarcerated. He soon establishes a reputation as a dangerous, uncontrollable inmate, which puts him in the sights of the guards, a powerful criminal element, and the person who might present a path to getting out of this criminal cycle, a volunteer therapist (Rupert Friend).
The screenwriter of the film, Jonathan Asser, knows a thing or two about the subject, as he based the script on his own experiences as a volunteer therapist in London’s largest and most dangerous prison. The result is a script crackling with realism and intensity. At times it almost plays like a surviving prison procedural, as shivs are made, fights geared up for, and cells are decked out.
The pruno recipe’s pretty delicious, actually.
Director David Mackenzie and DP Michael McDonagh shoot all this predominantly handheld and with a typically muted institutional palette, but are adept at finding contrast and even a type of beauty in the confined colors and spaces. The greatness in Starred Up, however, lies in its characters. Asser’s stand-in Friend has the smallest role, but makes his mark as a man trying to help volatile, emotionally stunted men find a way to control themselves and move forward, not because he’s a white knight, but perhaps because he identifies with them too well. There’s a rage simmering beneath the surface of his composure. He’s not here because he wants to be, but, as he himself says, he needs this.
The main dramatic interplay of the film, though, is between Mendelsohn and O’Connell, father and son. Mendelsohn is a lifer, never a presence in his son’s life, but he still has paternal feelings, and as much as he struggles to communicate this, wants to steer him right. He does an excellent job showing just how related he is to his volatile son, how emotional damage is hereditary in practice if not fact. These are two men who’d rather fight than confront their feelings, demonstrated when the psychological violence in their relationship often takes a frighteningly literal form.
Starred Up is Jack O’Connell’s film, though. He’s a beast, and he attacks this role in a way that has more than superficial similarities (the cockiness, the body oil, penises aplenty) to Tom Hardy’s breakout turn in Bronson.
Bane’s hipster phase was awkward.
He’s had to fight for everything in his life, to the point that it’s all he knows, but at age 19 there’s still hope. Friend sees it, and Mendelsohn knows it must be pursued, because he is his son further down the road. But will O’Connell ever realize it?
For a film that feels so unflinchingly realistic, Starred Up does resort to conventional tactics to nudge the plot along here and there. The villainous warden character is effective, but too obviously necessary to wrap up Friend’s arc and engineer the climax. Speaking of that climax, as powerful as it is, the fact it hinges on a prisoner running free all across the prison without ever being observed stretches things a tad too far.
Starred Up is a blistering star-maker for Jack O’Connell and a powerful, all too plausible prison drama.