The phrase “starred up” is British slang, referring to the transfer of a juvenile offender to adult incarceration. In David Mackenzie’s Starred Up the offender in question is Eric (Jack O’Connell). We enter the prison with Eric, watching him as he is strip-searched, as he constructs a makeshift shiv, as he unleashes savage violence on a fellow prisoner: the kind of reflexive violence endemic to someone who’s grown up in the system.
Said violence brings the wrath of a gaggle of prison guards, but unearths a saviour of a sort in the form of Rupert Friend’s prison therapist. At this stage you expect a straightforward redemptive arc. But Starred Up understands that the influence of lifelong suspicion and abuse is not so easy to shake, especially given the influence of Eric’s long-incarcerated father, Neville (Ben Mendelson).
The film is, first and foremost, interested in the legacy of masculinity defined almost entirely by unrepentant violence, but its commitment to a pull-no-punches approach ensures that it succeeds where an idealistic approach would have stumbled. This is thanks to both Mackenzie’s spot-on naturalistic direction and especially O’Connell’s utterly committed, sharp-edged performance, in the role that serves as a bridge between Skins and Unbroken.