Starred Up

Starred Up.'
Courtesy of Tribeca Film
Jack O'Connell in 'Starred Up.'

The Labor Day weekend, signaling the last of summer movies, usually brings out a herd of barking dogs. I'm talking about you The November Man, The Last of Robin Hood, and As Above/So Below. So it's a satisfying shock to see a damn near great movie emerge from the muck. That would be Starred Up, a British prison drama from director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) that is a romping, stomping knockout with an unexpected emotional pull. Violence comes with the territory as the warden (Sam Spruell) exerts a losing battle for control over a snake pit of career cons. From the moment that 19-year-old Eric (Jack O'Connell) enters the lock-up where his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), has been stewing for 14 years, Starred Up locks you in its grip. The title refers to juveniles who are deemed so uncontrollable that they're moved into an adult prison. Eric is a mad-dog incarnate. Jonathan Asser's screenplay doesn't do too much explaining, except to say that Eric entered the system as a kid when his mother died. And the garbled dialogue spit out by these cons can be unintelligible. But as Neville and therapist Olivier (the excellent Rupert Friend) fight to prevent Eric from becoming another victim of the system, the sheer physical intensity of the film brings the meaning through with startling clarity. The actors are flawless. As the father, torn by the love and hate his son feels for him, Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) is magnificent. And O'Connell, soon to head the cast of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, explodes onscreen in a star-is-born performance. Starred Up is a small indie film in danger of slipping through the cracks at the Hollywood-driven multiplex. Finding it – in theaters or on VOD – is well worth the effort.

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