We follow Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) into prison, and we never leave.
That's how Starred Up, which is now playing in select theaters, a scrapper of a British movie with a split lip and a tear in its eye, begins — with the process by which someone is turned from a regular person into an inmate. 19-year-old Eric, who's been transferred from juvie to a grown-up facility two years ahead of schedule thanks to his violent tendencies (the meaning of the title), strips and is searched, gets his uniform, and is walked through a series of gates and hallways to his cell, where, alone, he promptly makes and hides a shiv. Out on the yard, an older man walks up to him and tells him to get over himself and join the rest of the cons in their slow circuit. The guy, we soon learn, is Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), Eric's father, and that brusque advice is his attempt at parenting.
Starred Up is directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam) and written by Jonathan Asser, who drew from his experiences working as a prison therapist. Like most jailhouse dramas, it can be suddenly and shockingly violent, with wounds doled out with fists and makeshift weapons, but its focus is getting past those impulses in men who have to struggle to act any other way. It's a cautiously, haltingly hopeful story under the bruises, and in the least easy way possible. It's a father and son story that also uses its young protagonist as a soldier in the war between two opposing forces defining prison — is it a place where criminals are rehabilitated, or one where they're kept away from the rest of the world for as long as possible?
Jack O'Connell, a scene-stealer as James Cook in Skins who's the star of Angelina Jolie's upcoming directorial effort Unbroken, shows flickers of boyishness underneath a brawny, foul-mouthed hard man exterior. Eric isn't faking toughness, but despite his claims that, like a "dead person," "I don't fucking feel anything," he's all wells of resentfulness, anger, and vulnerability. Bouncing with restless energy, he almost can't help but lash out, channeling everything into aggression until he's taken into therapist Oliver Baumer's (Rupert Friend) group, where in the company of fellow prisoners like Hassan (Anthony Welsh) and Tyrone (David Ajala), he begins to work on controlling his rage.
Starred Up swerves past a lot of possible clichés — Oliver's good at what he does, but he's no saintly savior. Neville may genuinely want to do right by his son, but sabotages and tears him down as often as he comes to his aid. Shot caller Dennis (Peter Ferdinando) is willing to have Eric killed in order to preserve peace on the wing, but tells him with paternal friendliness that he sees himself in the newcomer. The more we learn about Eric's past and the more we see of the hotbed of betrayal, brutality, and posturing that is the prison, the more his trust issues seem utterly understandable, if also a frequent cause of problems. Starred Up puts you in the precarious position of feeling for Eric while believing him to be absolutely capable of impulsively killing someone.
There have been many prison movies before Starred Up, and there will be plenty after, but what makes it such a particularly strong one is the time it spends with dangerous men who are trying, against all their ingrained instincts, to calm down and to open up. The scenes of Eric in the group are particularly fine, as he clashes and bonds with his fellow prisoners — a totally profane conversation about cunnilingus manages to be kind of lovable. Even in that attempted sanctuary, things can quickly go wrong — and it's even less stable with his father, who's been in prison for most of Eric's life, and who wants to hit the teenager as much as hug him.
When Starred Up finally gives way to a more movie-like plot after letting the camera prowl after the characters through the crowded, dark wing, it comes as a relief if also a bit of a letdown, offering up a moment of closure in a world defined by harsh monotony. With sentences stretching ahead of them for a decade and more, it's hard for these characters to give much thought to the future, but what Neville wants is for Eric to focus on the life he'll have when he's out, rather than resign himself to an existence behind bars. That desire is one of the few hints of tenderness we get in this unflinching but thrilling film.