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? But a small miracle happens. 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, we have a stake in Eric's life, perhaps more than he does himself. Starred Up — written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, who 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.
Early on, the prison administrators don't seem to be such horrible people: They have the faces of regular folks. But 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.