It’s particularly impressive when a movie whose premise alone seems to have been written with the intention of incurring heavy gasps can actually conjure up something rather genuine. Whereas Starred Up’s central maneuver — sticking a delinquent teenager in adult prison right alongside, as it just so happens, his no good father (“Oh my!”) — seems like the kind of contrivance that entails thick melodrama and Oscar reel-friendly climactic scenes, the movie plays everything close to the ground. It favors kindling over explosives, a paced climb over vertical leaps, and — most importantly — criminal men over criminal monsters.
In fact, the victory of the film is just how reasonable its characters seem from the get-go. While the crime and prison genres more often than not approach their antiheroes with the mission of giving audiences an unexpected look at the humanity within bad men, Starred Up takes the reverse — more original and perhaps more valuable — approach: slowly waking its viewers up to the badness that inflicts these humans.
Yes, we have an immediate understanding of how the malicious and unpredictable Eric (Jack O’Connell) wound up in prison ahead of his years, but at no point are we dealing with a character whose erraticism drags him all the way south of empathetic comprehension. Though a more patient and poised man, Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendehlson) is too understood from all fronts: he’s a survivor whose Machiavellian instincts would have more than likely landed him in prison at one point or another. It’s this intellect and wisdom, though, that endears him to us. And to Eric.
We’re not forced to wade through a marshland of temperate drama before we see Eric and Neville “finally make up.” Right off the bat, we’re given the relationship the movie wants us to see, steeped in the conversation it wants us to have: one about masculinity. Between the two men, within the contexts of Eric’s mandatory group therapy sessions with counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend) and a collection of seasoned inmates — don’t worry, this flick never goes that false and sappy route that most therapy movies employ — and scattered throughout various corners of the prison, we witness talk of masculinity. But once again, Starred Up isn’t hitting us over the head with gaudy exclamations. The power of this movie is in its lack of interest in the dramatic and its preference, instead, of the humane.