Critics' Pick

Starred Up (NR)

Drama 100 min. September 5, 2014
By Stephanie Zacharek
The beginning of David Mackenzie's U.K. prison drama might make you wonder if you'll survive to the end: We see a kid with a hard-eyed, shutdown face being matriculated at a new jail — he's been "starred up," or prematurely transferred from a juvenile facility to an adult one. Nineteen-year-old Eric (Jack O'Connell) defies the guards from the first moment — his glower is almost a kind of shiv in itself.

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.
David Mackenzie Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Sam Spruell, Sian Breckin, David Ajala, Peter Ferdinando, Matt Faris, Anthony Welsh, Ashley Chin Jonathan Asser Gillian Berrie Tribeca Films

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